Living within our means, Hockey style

You have to give it to the Coalition propaganda machine – it never fails to come up with a brand new slogan with which it can belabor the Government. We are now being told by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey that we must ‘live within our means’. How many times have we heard that? Otherwise, they tell us, there will be Federal Budget deficits ‘as far as the eye can see’. Can you count how many times you have heard that little gem?

Again, the ability of the Coalition’s media machine to devise catchy slogans is apparent. Who would want deficits for as ‘far as the eye can see’; who would object to the notion of ‘living within our means’? When you look at these words seriously though, you will see that they are, as usual, just more of the Coalition’s catchy, plausible, yet meaningless slogans.

What does ‘living within our means’ really mean?

It all depends on the time, and the circumstances. By using the phrase though, the Coalition is relying on the electorate giving it a tick of approval without asking what they really mean by it.

When the parents of baby boomers lived within their means they did so by saving until they had the cash for what they wanted. With no credit cards around, that was the only option. For a house they saved until they had a deposit and then approached the bank manager with trepidation for a house loan that often stretched over 25 years, with three-monthly repayments. They ‘lived within their means’ because there was no other option.

By the time Generation X arrived, living within one’s means morphed into paying off the required minimum on the credit card each month, which was often ‘maxed-out’. They bought what they wanted within the limit on their cards and hoped they could pay for it some time. They paid a lot of interest on the way, and some defaulted. For housing, banks were willing to lend vast sums to buy McMansions, leaving house owners to worry about every interest rate rise lest it tip them over the edge and leave them not living within their means.

These two times reflect quite different ways of ‘living within one’s means’. The Coalition is using this homely metaphor in the hope that older people will think of what was in their early years almost a ‘cash economy’, certainly for everything but buying a home, and will apply that image to the one and a half trillion-dollar economy that Australia has. It is a misleading analogy that the Coalition hopes will have older people nodding in approval – of course the country must live within its means, just like we did!

Yet, should voters think about it, most of them who own a home today did not pay cash for it – they borrowed money and paid it off over many years. If that is normal and OK for homeowners, why is government borrowing so ‘evil’, why is incurring debt such a terrible blight on government? It’s only so because the Coalition has said so. Humpty Dumpty Hockey has ensured that ‘living within our means’ connotes just what he wanted it to mean – out-of-control borrowing to fund profligate spending. He even uses the maxed-out credit card analogy.

Let’s then examine why government borrowing is in a category different from personal and household borrowing, and why placing them in the same class is misleading.

Joe Hockey would have us believe that running a $1.5 trillion national economy is not dissimilar from running a household budget. He would have us believe that borrowing and running up debt is bad in both circumstances, and that when the budget is not balanced his so-called ‘belt tightening’ is necessary, whether it be a household budget or a government one. That analogy is simplistic either by design, or because Hockey knows no better. As Hockey wants to be Treasurer, we can only hope it is not the latter.

Governments are responsible for maintaining the health of an economy, no matter what the global financial circumstances happen to be. When there is high debt, where expenditure has exceeded revenue, especially for a long while, there is a natural tendency towards ‘belt tightening’, contemporaneously styled ‘austerity’, to reduce expenditure, to lessen debt and to move towards balancing the budget. That has been a dominant school of economic thought during the current global financial crisis. However, notwithstanding that plausible strategy, austerity has not been a spectacular success where it has been applied.

Europe has been the test bed for the application of austerity, or to use Hockey’s phrase ‘belt tightening’. The economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, and more recently Cyprus, were jeopardized by chronic overspending, particularly on social services, generous pensions and the like, spending that was not offset by revenue. The very wealthy in some of these countries, Greece in particular, made an art form of tax avoidance, so tax revenue has been chronically below expenditure. I emphasize ‘chronically’, to highlight the fact that this is no temporary deficit, as is Australia’s. It was understandable that when these economies reached the point where default on debt threatened, bailout funding was sought to address this sovereign debt risk.

Taking Greece as an example, the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a €110 billion bailout loan provided Greece implemented austerity measures to restore the fiscal balance, privatised €50bn worth of government assets by the end of 2015, and implemented structural reforms to improve competitiveness and growth prospects. Similar arrangements were made with other countries in a comparable situation. Austerity was a key element.

It was always a controversial remedy; advocates and opponents disagreed passionately about its capacity to resolve the Eurozone state of affairs.

In his 28 April article in The New York Times: The Story of Our Time, Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, wrote: "People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed…wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out."

Even those of us who were not in touch with the detailed economic arguments for and against austerity, saw on TV the political upheaval and civil disturbances that followed the imposition of austerity measures, first in Greece, and later elsewhere. Despite the application of these measures for a long while, there is not much positive to show for them in economic terms, and in places like Spain, unemployment has reached 27%, with youth unemployment approaching 50%.

Another article in The New York Times that Krugman wrote earlier in the year: Austerity Europe, may be of interest to the technically minded as it includes a revealing graph of how austerity is accompanied by reduced, not increased growth. Regarding that graph, Krugman says: "In normal life, a result like this would be considered overwhelming confirmation of the proposition that austerity has large negative impacts. Yes, you can concoct elaborate stories about how it could be wrong; but it’s really reaching. It seems safe to say that what we have here is a case in which rival theories made different predictions, the predictions of one theory proved completely wrong while those of the other were totally vindicated – but in which adherents of the failed theory, for political and ideological reasons, refuse to accept the facts." The last sentence is telling – although experience has demonstrated the failure of the austerity approach, its adherents cling tenaciously to it, even to this day.

Since Krugman wrote that article, academic evidence devastating to the austerity approach has emerged. The intuitive argument for austerity and belt tightening has been underpinned all this time by a 2010 academic paper Growth in a Time of Debt by Harvard academics Carmen Rinehart and Kenneth Rogoff of the US National Bureau of Economic Research, a paper that purported to ‘prove’ that debt inhibited economic growth, and by implication, austerity promoted it.

Rinehart and Rogoff reported three findings; the first, the one that austerity proponents relied upon, read: "Our main findings are: First, the relationship between government debt and real GDP growth is weak for debt/GDP ratios below a threshold of 90 percent of GDP. Above 90 percent, median growth rates fall by one percent, and average growth falls considerably more.”

The austerity advocates in Europe grasped onto this paper to reinforce their intuitive approach to debt problems in the Eurozone, namely that debt above a certain level inhibits growth, and that austerity was the answer. But it was not just in Europe that the paper gained ready acceptance. It was cited by Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican nominee for the US vice presidency, in his proposed 2013 budget The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal. Did Joe Hockey also read the Rinehart Rogoff paper and use it to support his ‘belt tightening’ mantra? I wonder!

The paper held sway for a couple of years, then along came Thomas Herndon, a doctoral student at the US Political Economy Research Institute, who, as part of his studies re-examined the Rinehart Rogoff paper, and to his surprise found an elementary error in the Excel spreadsheet they used to calculate their results.

Writing in an article: The Reinhart-Rogoff error – or how not to Excel at economics in The Conversation, Jonathan Borwein and David H Bailey from The University of Newcastle reported that after analysing the data, Herndon identified three errors: “The most serious was that, in their Excel spreadsheet, Reinhart and Rogoff had not selected the entire row when averaging growth figures: they omitted data from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark. In other words, they had accidentally only included 15 of the 20 countries under analysis in their key calculation. When that error was corrected, the “0.1% decline” data [a key finding supporting austerity] became a 2.2% average increase in economic growth.” [My bolding.] "So the key conclusion of a seminal paper, which has been widely quoted in political debates in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, was invalid.” Herndon’s professors, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, checked his findings and found Herndon had correctly identified the Rinehart Rogoff error.

The article in The Conversation concluded: ”If Reinhart and Rogoff…had made any attempt to allow access to their data immediately at the conclusion of their study, the Excel error would have been caught and their other arguments and conclusions could have been tightened. They might still be the most dangerous economists in the world, but they would not now be in the position of saving face in light of damning critiques in The Atlantic and elsewhere.

“As Matthew O’Brien put it last week in The Atlantic: “For an economist, the five most terrifying words in the English language are: I can’t replicate your results. But for economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff of Harvard, there are seven even more terrifying ones: I think you made an Excel error.

“Listen, mistakes happen. Especially with Excel. But hopefully they don’t happen in papers that provide the intellectual edifice for an economic experiment – austerity – that has kept millions out of work. Well, too late.”

The Gillard Government is not an adherent of the austerity approach, at least in the extreme form that was applied in Europe, but if one can judge from Joe Hockey’s words and Tony Abbott’s mutterings, the Coalition is.

It seems as if it is the conservative side of politics that favours the austerity line of attack. We hear it from the Coalition, we see it in an extreme form in Campbell Newman’s Queensland, we see it applied in its grossest form in Europe, we see it in the US in the ongoing fiscal cliff debate where the conservatives (Republicans) insisted that radically cutting government expenditure (austerity) and leaving untouched tax breaks for the wealthy is the only way to go, whereas the progressives (Democrats) advocate the opposite.

And if you need any more convincing of this stark difference in attitude and approach to debt in the Australian context, do watch Friday evening’s episode of Lateline where economist Stephen Koukoulas, MD of Market Economics, debated ‘the health of the economy’ with Judith Sloan, academic economist and economics editor at The Australian. Koukoulas spoke like an economist, Sloan like a Coalition advocate, slogans and all.

What the voters in Australia will soon have to decide is whether they want to go down the austerity track – ‘living within our means’ Hockey style – as advocated by the Coalition, or whether they prefer the less radical approach of the Government to bring the budget back to surplus in a steady fashion, preserving jobs and economic growth in the process.

Putting it more bluntly, voters will have to decide whether they want to follow a process of austerity discredited by experience in Europe, now stripped of its intellectual underpinnings, or follow the less radical approach of the Gillard Government that seeks to maintain modest expenditure and stay away from heavy-handed austerity, and in the process enable our nation to avoid an economic downturn and rising unemployment, a process that is based on sound economics and proven practice.

Sadly, the loose language that the Coalition uses in this debate may seduce the unthinking into believing that their plausible but empty slogans are economically sound, and well tried and tested.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Craig Emerson, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Bob Katter, Andrew Leigh, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Grasping at prime ministership the Abbott way

Let’s be clear from the outset. The lead up to the September 14 election will not be a respectful contest of ideas, a civil battle of policies and plans. It will be a bare-knuckle street fight between personalities, with no holds barred. The Abbott way countenances no other approach.

To seize the top job, the Abbott way is to have many lines of attack. A keen observer of the Abbott way is the source of the principles and strategies detailed below. Some may appear counterintuitive, but they work:

Feelings are more important in winning elections than rational thinking.
Capturing hearts trumps changing minds.
Emotionally laden words beat fact-based logic.

Here is the Abbott way of applying them:

Facts and logic point to the virility and robustness of Australia’s economy. So many of its parameters are laudable: low unemployment, low inflation and falling interest rates, low debt to GDP ratio, growth near trend, even rising business and consumer confidence and increasing retail sales in recent months.

Although we hear of job losses as industries affected by the persistently high Australian dollar shed workers, all except 5.6% of the workforce have jobs, historically low by any standard.

Mortgagees enjoy the lowest interest rates since the lows of the GFC, avoiding thousands of dollars a year in interest payments. Self-funded retirees who depend heavily on interest bearing investments for income complain a little, but there are not many of them; most have investments and property.

But ask the people how they are doing, and they say they are doing it tough.

Yet they live in a vibrant economy, where CPI data tell us that while petrol and power prices are up, food and supermarket prices are falling. Even where some costs have risen because of putting a price on carbon, households have been more than compensated. But ask the people about prices and they vow they are getting higher and higher, despite evidence to the contrary. It is embedded in their psyche that ‘they are doing it tough’.

Facts and reasoning, even commonsense, are replaced by the feeling that things are crook.

With such an economy, the Gillard Government ought to be miles ahead in the polls and be rated as good economic managers, but not only is the Coalition well ahead, polls show that it is consistently rated as the better manager of the economy. It defies logic.

But it does demonstrate the principle that how people feel is more important than what they think. Facts are irrelevant if there is an entrenched feeling to the contrary.

How has the Abbott way achieved this outcome?

It’s been easy. No matter how laudably the Government has been managing the economy, no matter how well Treasurer Swan is regarded in international circles, the tactic has been simply to tell everyone that the economy is tanking, that Labor never could manage money, that it is addicted to spending and debt, that it will never bring in a surplus budget, that it is creating sovereign risk, that its recent superannuation changes were 'shades of Cyprus', and that now even its coveted triple A ratings are under threat, then add that the Coalition knows how to run an economy, has done it before during the golden Howard years, and can do it again. Never mind that the economic circumstances of the Howard era and the current Labor era are radically different. People won’t even think about that if it’s not mentioned.

Which brings us to the second set of Abbott principles:

Truth is irrelevant in politics, but plausibility is not.
No matter how far from the truth, if a statement is convincing, and especially if it matches preconceived prejudices, it will be believed.
Remember Goebbels’ dictums: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” and “The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.”

The Coalition has applied these principles to its great advantage. It has created an atmosphere of distrust, even despair about the economy among consumers and businesses, and they have swallowed the gloom holus bolus. When the gloom has been challenged with the facts of a buoyant economy, it has been easy to contradict it by endlessly repeating that people are doing it tough, and exemplifying this with news stories about disgruntled families struggling to pay their mortgages and their household bills, especially power bills. It doesn’t matter if some of these families are earning $150,000 plus. With kids at private schools, a second car in the garage, and a large mortgage to pay off their McMansion; they really feel life is tough. These stories are intended to anger those who see themselves in a similar position, and to muster sympathy from those who aspire to such a position. The next step is to convince them and everyone else that it’s the Government’s fault and that they would be better off with competent managers in power – the Coalition of course.

The Coalition has been tactically clever in promoting this ‘ain’t it awful’ mindset, because it has made it difficult for the Government to counter by telling people that they are doing just fine. So Labor too has joined the ‘doing it tough’ chorus. In fact, only a few weeks back Joel Fitzgibbon said the people working the mines in his electorate on $140,000 a year were doing it tough, and a constituent on $250,000 was ‘struggling’. No amount of reminding these people about how good the economic figures are makes any difference – they remain convinced they are struggling and resent anyone telling them otherwise. So all the Coalition has to do is to repeat the ‘doing it tough’ message over and again.

Which takes us to a third set of Abbott principles:

Repetition is essential.
Never let up on sending your message, no matter how bored some may become. It might look like brainwashing, but it works.
Keep the message simple.
Ensure the message is memorable.

The Coalition has specialized in short sharp messages – opponents call them slogans. It doesn't care, so long as they stick. The message does not have to be true, or even logical, so long as it is believable and catchy.

Take the 2010 election catchphrases: ‘End the waste’, ‘Pay back the debt’, ‘Stop the big new taxes’, ‘Stop the boats’ and ‘Help struggling families’. Remember how easy it was to have the public embrace them. Who wouldn’t want an end to waste? There was no need to advance evidence of waste as already this had been done with the adverse publicity over the HIP and the BER. Who would object to paying back the debt? There was no need to show how the Coalition would do that, or even whether it might be a prudent thing to do at that time. Who would disagree with stopping big new taxes? Explaining what that meant was unnecessary as the carbon tax, vivid in everyone’s mind, was painted as ‘a great big new tax on everything’. All except a handful wanted the boats stopped to avert the risk of drowning. There was no need to say how the Coalition would do this, and at what cost. And the motherhood statement ‘Help struggling families’ was a no brainer. What fool would contradict that? How the Coalition would do this did not need to be spelt out; implicitly the catchphrase assumed it could and would.

Despite the brevity and lack of detail in these slogans, they worked a treat, because they were catchy, easily recalled and plausible, albeit superficially.

More recently, in the pursuit of a more positive image, the Coalition has used another catchphrase in its booklet: Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians to portray its ‘plan for the future’. Note how clever this is. ‘Real’ appeals, as does ‘solutions’! People want solutions and if they are ‘real’ what more could they ask? The fact that these words are meaningless without substance matters little. Solutions for what? How do solutions become ‘real?’ Can solutions be ‘unreal’? The meaning of the catchphrase is irrelevant so long as it sounds attractive and plausible. Substance is unnecessary. How many will read the booklet? The title is left to create the desired positive image, and it probably will.

Which segues into the fourth set of Abbott principles:

Use the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach – words can mean whatever you want them to mean.
If anyone challenges what meaning has been given to a word, simply say that that is not its meaning.
If anyone confronts you with a damaging statement a Coalition member or staffer has made, first deny it. If the chatter persists, insist that what was said was misinterpreted. If it continues, brush it away as ‘past history’, insist that action has been taken, and that ‘the matter is now at an end’.

For example, when the Coalition's Paid Parental Leave scheme was announced, the words ‘fair dinkum’ were used to describe it. Aussies like things to be ‘fair dinkum’; it’s a bit like ‘real solutions’. The words also had the effect of diminishing the value of Labor’s scheme; by definition it could not be as ‘fair dinkum’. To pay for it, a 1.5% ‘levy’ would be imposed on around three thousand companies with the largest profit. Everyone knew that would be portrayed as a ‘tax’, but it was easy to insist that it was a ‘levy’ and a ‘modest levy’ at that, and it would be offset by a similar reduction in company tax. The Coalition insists it is still a levy, and definitely not a tax. See how easy it is to make words mean whatever you want them to mean.

Another example is the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan to combat climate change. Note ‘action’ is a key word, one voters like, and this time it is ‘direct’, which of course makes it ‘real’. It has been easy to conceal from most voters the fact that the DAP will impose a burden of $1,300 on every household and cost taxpayers many billions every year, will require many new regulations and hundreds of new bureaucrats to enforce them, will rely on the creation of a 15,000 strong Green Army to plant 20 million trees on what semi-arable land can be procured, and on burying tonnes of biochar in farmland. By using the term ‘Direct Action Plan’ – three stylish and comfortable words – the Coalition has been able to deflect attention from details that some voters might find discomforting, and from all the negative appraisals of the Plan by economists and environmentalists, leaving them with just those reassuring words that have given the Plan a comfortable aura, words that would have made even Humpty Dumpty proud.

On the principle of brushing off damaging statements, the Coalition has managed to do that remarkably effectively over ‘Ashbygate’, and the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ outburst.

This leads to the next set of Abbott principles:

To achieve any of the above, a compliant media is required.
The mainstream media in this country is the conduit for convincing the people of the veracity of what the Coalition says.
The value of having media proprietors onside is inestimable.
Be prepared to do whatever it takes to get them onside.
Foster support from the wealthy and powerful as they have influence over the media.

This has been a Coalition success story. The Murdoch media has shown its willingness to not just support the Coalition, but oppose the Government. The Coalition could not have asked for an easier ride from the MSM. The Australian and the Murdoch tabloids have been strongly supportive and ready to put the Government down at every opportunity. News Limited’s Newspoll has been used not just as a measure of support for the parties, but the results have been written up in a way that no matter what the figures show, Labor has been shown up at a disadvantage. Rupert Murdoch gave an early indication that he wanted the Gillard Government gone, and he has been true to his word. Let’s face it, the Coalition could not have been in the favourable position it is in without the help of the Murdoch media, and now with its good friend Gina Rinehart a big shareholder at Fairfax, another large media outlet is onside.

The ABC was hard on Abbott in the Leigh Sales interview about the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam deferral, but her latest interview was a soft one, no doubt the result of lots of angry protests filed by Coalition supporters against the earlier one. It was easy to avoid her questions and control the interview. The ABC too looks like coming on board.

This leads to the fifth set of Abbott principles:

It is not enough to counter your opponent’s policies; you have to counter your opponent.
Demonization of opponents, particularly leaders, is essential. It is a form of ‘shooting the messenger’.
Demonization can be achieved by accusing an opponent of some misdemeanour, over and again, no matter how remote in time.
The misdemeanour need not be of any consequence, as the object is simply to raise doubts in voters’ minds about the integrity of your opponent.
Labelling an opponent pejoratively is a sure fire method, as no matter how improbable the accusation, some of it will stick.
If a theme of malfeasance or incompetence can be established, so much the better, as each instance reinforces the others.
Even if a Coalition member is guilty of the same misdemeanour, laying it on an opponent is the best counter. For example, if you tell lies yourself, accuse your opponent of lying.
Even if journalists contradict your assertions, even if they question their validity, always insist that you are correct. Never retreat. Repeat them again and again as if you haven’t heard the contradiction.
Making the electorate angry with your opponent is essential; it is vital to build up resentment and an aura of blame, so that no matter what good things your opponent does, they will be negated by the antagonism, anger and hatred that you have generated against your opponent.
It is essential to have allies in the media before engaging these strategies.

The Coalition has been successful in employing these principles.

Julia Gillard has been demonised as a liar, and labelled untrustworthy. The Coalition was gifted with her statement about not introducing a carbon tax. We know that only half of what she actually said has been circulated, but that matters nothing. The Coalition has many video clips of her saying these words that it will use over and again in election advertising, painting her as an untrustworthy liar. No amount of logic or reasoning will erase that. It is a sure winner. And hasn’t the rehashing of the Slater and Gordon matter been effective in casting doubts on her integrity!

She and her Government have been labelled as incompetent on the grounds that she has changed her position on some issues, and has not been able to bring off some of her changes. Moreover, her Government has been repeatedly labelled as dysfunctional, disunited, illegitimate, ‘a rabble’, the worst government in the nation’s history, worse that Whitlam’s, and ‘a bad government getting worse’. This has steadily eroded confidence in the Government and Julia Gillard. It has been one of the Coalition’s most effective strategies.

Journalists do sometimes challenge the use of words, for example, the use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seekers. Although strictly speaking that is correct, it strengthens the antipathy to boat people if the word is used. Those who are antagonistic to them don’t care that it is legal to seek asylum. What they want is reinforcement of their existing prejudices.

This brings us to a sixth set of Abbott principles, which are about policies and the media:

Policy statements are unimportant almost until election-day, as an excuse for not making them can always be found, and the Government blamed for their absence.
The longer policy announcements and costings can be delayed the better. Keep the electorate guessing. Be a ‘small target’.
It is much more important to have a strong media unit than a policy unit.
A media unit sets up the leader and shadow ministers with the message for the day.
Simple messages, consistently delivered, are essential.
It doesn’t matter if the message is simplistic or at times incorrect or even inane, so long as it is delivered accurately, consistently and repeatedly.
Remember, most of the electorate is not analytical.
Messages must be plausible and memorable even if they don’t make a lot of sense.
Soft media interviews with complaint journalists are to be preferred.
‘Doorstops’ are easier to handle and wind up.
If a question is asked that is at all threatening, answer instead a preferred question, or address a more convenient subject, one endowed with more political capital.
If questions become tough or insistent, a tried and tested routine is simply to walk away.
It is better to walk away than to go on the record with an embarrassing or inappropriate answer that can be replayed endlessly.
Lengthy, hard studio interviews with probing persistent journalists are to be avoided.
Whatever you do, avoid saying anything that might ‘frighten the horses’. That can wait until after the election.
Use 'Tea Party' style public events with lots of placards and women as a background as that appeals to the people. Try to look like a nice guy, and behave kindly to women. Try to erase past images of nastiness. Insist you can change and grow into the job.

These principles have been used for over two years now, and the Coalition has got away with them.

The repeated slogans have been a winner. Voters don’t think too deeply about them, but they do repeat them on cue, like Pavlov’s dogs. If challenged, some may reflect on their veracity, but who bothers to put them right. Very few! People prefer their prejudices to a reasoned debate. Neither do voters think too deeply about new ideas, like Abbott's ‘development of the North’ and 'more dams' thought bubbles, and as they attract little scrutiny from the media, no detail is necessary so long as the ideas sound good.

The Coalition has been successful at avoiding difficult encounters with the media, and when the going has gotten tough, walking away has been a good solution. They get criticism from a few journalists for doing this, but most go along with the strategy. What can they do anyway?

The situations Abbott avoids are Q&A, 7.30, Lateline and radio interviews with astute people such as Jon Faine. Interviews with the likes of Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, David Spears, Paul Kelly, and Peter van Onselen give the best result. They feed Dorothy Dixers, don’t come with the tough questions, and even when they try, as did van Onselen last week over the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ episode, it was left to the end and meekly retreated from in the face of a firm rebuttal.

And the 'Tea Party' events have attracted a lot of publicity.

So there it is – how to grasp prime ministership the Abbott way, how to seize it from Julia Gillard, and simply slide into The Lodge, or Kirribilli! If it seems deeply cynical, that is because it is. This is the bare-knuckle approach of the man who wants to be this nation's leader, in all its gory detail.

The Coalition is well aware of hubris and says it is not taking anything for granted, but with the polls the way they are, it looks to Abbott as if he is a shoo-in for prime ministership, so long as no one puts their foot in it in the next five months and blows his flimsy cover.

This then is the ugly Abbott way, exposed for all to see; clever and successful in parts, but ugly nonetheless.

You could almost believe it had come right out of the horse’s mouth.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Jenny Macklin, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

David Marr joins ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ chorus

The first words in the online description of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott read: “Tony Abbott is the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years, but he has never been popular. Now Australians want to know: what kind of man is he, and how would he perform as prime minister?” On last week’s Q&A Marr repeated, with his characteristic certitude, that Tony Abbott “is the most successful Opposition leader…”

Marr is an outstanding essayist and political commentator. His views cannot be carelessly dismissed. So we need to ask how he can make such an assertion. Of course, he is not the only one to do so. Many News Limited journalists have said the same thing in one way or another, from the pontifical Paul Kelly, down to the lesser lights in the Murdoch media and in the Fairfax media too.

What then constitutes success? Let’s leave politics for a moment.

For anything or anybody to be classed as a success, four elements come into play. First, the criteria for success need to be defined; second, a measurement scale needs to be constructed; third, a standard for ‘success’ on that scale needs to be established; and finally, the position occupied by the thing or the person on that scale needs to be measured and judged as having met, or not met, that standard of ‘success’. In educational endeavours, these steps are commonplace.

Let’s take a mundane example. What is a successful cricketer? The criteria of success might be the number of runs scored or wickets captured or catches taken or runs saved in bowling or fielding. For a captain, criteria might include the wisdom of decisions about batting and fielding, team structure, on-field strategy, team culture, and so on. As there is a multitude of measurement scales and expert opinion that capture the extent to which these criteria are being met, it is easy to ascertain how successful individuals are by setting their performance against these measures and the standards that cricket aficionados set.

Returning to politics, what are the criteria of success, and for the purposes of this piece, what are the criteria for success as an Opposition Leader?

It is at this basic level that disagreement begins. For people like David Marr and Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, and even lesser lights such as Graham Richardson and Graeme Morris, it seems that an essential criterion is the ability to oppose. It seems that under the Westminster system, those in opposition feel obliged to oppose. Says Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution: “It is said that England invented the phrase, 'Her Majesty's Opposition'; that it was the first government which made a criticism of administration as much a part of the polity as administration itself.”

Randolph Churchill, whom Tony Abbott quotes in his book Battlelines, said: “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose”, and “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.” This seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the Westminster system. In an interview of Margaret Thatcher by schoolchildren after her retirement, she recalled that a down side of politics for her was that no matter what she tried to do there was always opposition.

As argued in an earlier piece, Is the job of the Opposition to oppose? NO., it is NOT the job of Opposition to just oppose, but to engage in the process of governance so that the public can benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of all parliamentarians. That piece argued: "They are all paid from the public purse. Why should all of them not contribute and be accountable?"

If simple opposition is a criterion of success for an Opposition Leader, Abbott’s incessant opposition to virtually everything the Government says or does or proposes makes him ipso facto a success, because he measures high on any scale of opposition and reaches the ‘standard’ of ultra-high level opposition. However, as his trenchant opposition has not prevented the Gillard Government from passing over 480 pieces of legislation, his success in thwarting legislation is virtually zero.

But is unremitting opposition what oppositions ought to be about? Of course, where the political ideology of the opposition conflicts with that of the government of the day on a particular issue, opposition is appropriate on that issue.

But there are many instances where ideological positions do not call for opposition. There are instances of collaboration, even close cooperation. Kim Beasley supported John Howard’s initiatives over the ‘Tampa affair’, and Howard supported several Hawke-Keating reforms. In these instances, both sides joined hands in the governance of the nation. That is what I believe should happen more often. Parliamentarians insist it often does, but all we electors see is opposition, obstruction and conflict. Not all of this is ideological. Much of Abbott’s opposition is purely and simply resistance to the Government itself, a Government whose legitimacy Abbott has never accepted. He is hell bent on discrediting and eventually destroying the Gillard Government.

So my question to Marr, and to all who laud Abbott for his success as Opposition Leader, is this: “Is opposition for reasons other than the ideological legitimate, acceptable, even praiseworthy? Is the destruction of an elected government, albeit a minority one, an acceptable function of this Opposition Leader, indeed any opposition leader?” Some commentators think so. They laud Abbott for having dispatched one Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and having eroded the status of his successor, Julia Gillard. They congratulate him on how difficult he has made governance for PM Gillard and her Government. Destruction of prime ministers and governments seems to be a criterion that commentators use to judge Abbott, and they rate him a ‘success’ on that criterion. What a wooly view they have of what constitutes legitimate opposition.

Is the repeated use of Question Time to berate the PM, her ministers and the Government a criterion of a good opposition? Is the asking of a tiny array of questions over and again (on carbon tax, minerals tax, budget surplus, asylum seekers) a criterion of a good opposition? Is it good opposition to scarcely ever ask a question about whole areas of government, Trade and Health being two examples? Is it good opposition on over sixty occasions to move the suspension of standing orders to castigate the Government, always unsuccessfully, thereby wasting hundreds of hours of parliamentary time and foregoing countless questions that could have been used to ‘hold the Government to account’, a rightful function for an opposition. Should opposition leaders be judged on the extent to which they use parliamentary time well or poorly? Does Marr consider Abbott should be measured and judged for such behaviour? If so, how does he rate him? Does Marr regard that behaviour as contributing to what he describes as Abbott’s ‘success’?

Does Marr consider contribution to the effective governance of the nation from opposition a rightful function? If so, how does he rate Abbott on that criterion? Does Abbott reach a standard that could be classed as ‘successful’? I doubt it. Marr’s criteria for success seem largely restricted to opposition and destructiveness.

What about parliamentary language and behaviour? Should opposition leaders be judged on how they conduct themselves in this the highest political forum in the nation? Should they be judged on their aggressiveness, the vituperativeness of their language? Did Marr rate Abbott’s ‘died of shame’ reference; did he rate his abusive demeanour and his offensive language directed to our PM? If he did, why does he still rate Abbott as “the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years?

What about the criteria of honesty and integrity? Are these applicable to opposition leaders, to this Opposition Leader? If they are, how would Marr rate Abbott? Would he rate him as ‘successful’ on those counts?

How would Marr rate Abbott’s performance in interacting with the media? How would he judge Abbott’s avoidance of hard interviews, his predilection for ‘soft’ interviews by his favourite shock jocks, his poor performance when nailed down by insistent interviewers, the lies he has told on many occasions, and his obfuscation and deviousness in answering pointed questions? Is this part of Abbott’s ‘success’?

How do Abbott’s gimmicks rate: fish kissing, butchering, banana stacking, supermarket trawling, truck driving, ‘fire fighting’, bicycle pedaling, surfing, appearing with wife and daughters? Does Marr rate these as a factor in his success?

What about the criteria of messaging and consistency of message? On those, Abbott would score well. He and his staff have manufactured a set of catchy and memorable slogans that he repeats endlessly. We know them all by heart. The fact that they are crass, comprising as they do distortions of the truth or simplistic statements of aspiration without substance is of no concern to Abbott or the Coalition, so long as they stick in people’s minds, so long as they effectively discredit the Government, and advantage the Coalition.

Does Marr, and those who vest Abbott with ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ garland, do so because of these slogans, slogans that have been so mindlessly embraced by the unthinking that they have become part of the political lexicon? If so, is that something we ought to expect of a successful opposition leader? Is skill at conjuring and confidence trickery a laudable attribute for opposition leaders? Perhaps Marr gives Abbott credit for the discipline he has shown in staying on message.

How would Marr judge Abbott’s performance at rallies berating the carbon tax and the minerals tax, appearing in front of banners worded: ‘Juliar’, ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’? More Abbott success?

Does Abbott earn Marr’s mantle because of the depth of his vision for the nation, the richness and variety of his policy offerings, the cohesion and persuasiveness of his policies, the accuracy of his policy costings, and the verve and consistency with which he pursues them? Hardly. Even when Abbott does come out with a policy, it looks paltry – his NBN-lite and his Direct Action Plan to combat global warming are examples. Marr is not without insight. Perhaps he regards Abbott’s ability to keep his policies and costings largely under wraps as a measure of success.

In extolling Abbott success, Marr asserts that he is “turning a rabble into a government in four years.” If holding his party together and having it adhere to the party line are suitable criteria, Abbott has done well. There have been outbreaks of dissonance by Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella and Cory Bernardi, and most recently intemperate language by staffer Mark Roberts, but by and large Abbott has kept his troops under control. If this is a criterion of success for an opposition leader, let’s give him a modest tick for that.

What about poll ratings? Since commentators and politicians alike dwell on poll results and give credence to them, Abbott could be judged a ‘success’ if elevating the Coalition in the polls is a criterion, although he has been less successful in elevating his own level of popularity. How much weight has Marr given to polling? A lot, it would seem.

Let’s add up the sums. Using the criteria outlined above, how many successes has Abbott had, successes that would warrant ‘the most successful opposition leader’ mantle, and how many failures?

Opposition to virtually everything the Government has done: A SUCCESS for some; a FAIL for many.

Contribution to effective governance: A FAIL by any account.

Damage to the Government and its leaders: A big SUCCESS for those who want to bring the Government down; a heavy FAIL for those who deplore such intent.

Prudent use of parliamentary time and resources: A FAIL by all accounts.

Parliamentary language and behaviour: A FAIL for all except his rusted on supporters.

Honesty and integrity: The evidence points to a big FAIL.

Interacting with the media: His minders would probably classify him as a SUCCESS; many observers would give him a FAIL.

Messaging and consistency of messages: His messages (crass and deceptive though his slogans might be) have met with SUCCESS, and his consistency has been a SUCCESS.

Use of gimmicks, publicity stunts and rally appearances: A SUCCESS for inventiveness, a FAIL for boorishness, tackiness and tastelessness.

Depth of vision, sound policies and costings: A very big FAIL by any assessment.

Keeping his party together and on message: A qualified SUCCESS.

Improving the Coalition’s position in the opinion polls: A big SUCCESS.

So there is my assessment of Abbott’s successes and failures. Of course such evaluation depends on the criteria selected, where Abbott is measured to be on the scale, and whether he has reached the set ‘standard’. Some judgements are subjective; others objective to some degree.

David Marr’s overall assessment of Tony Abbott, the pretender to prime ministership, is one of success. This piece explores what criteria he might have been using, challenges his attribution of ‘success’ to some criteria that I consider dubious or untenable, and ends with a challenge to him: “Detail your criteria to us, tell us how you measured Abbott against them, and then explain how your assessment of him against those criteria warrants the garland ‘the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years’.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Cory Bernardi, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Michaelia Cash, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Warren Truss, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong, and Nick Xenophon.

Policy making through the rear-view mirror

“We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror” was one of the many notable aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher, futurist, and communications theorist of the sixties.

If ever there was an image that captures Tony Abbott’s approach to public policy, this is it: driving into the future using only the rear-view mirror.

In full, McLuhan’s maxim reads: “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” His argument was that our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand.

On a contemporary note, take Tony Abbott’s approach to broadband, the lifeblood of more and more involved in commerce and industry, in education, health, agriculture, tourism, and in the tech-intensive and service industries. His initial approach was typical of his pugilistic nature. “Demolish the NBN” was his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull. It was a Labor initiative and therefore must be destroyed. Moreover, he knew that if the NBN were stillborn, Rupert Murdoch would be pleased, as that would eliminate a competitor to his TV empire.

Abbott failed. As Turnbull sipped from this poisoned chalice, all the more bitter because it demanded he act contrary to his tech-savvy nature, he realized that demolition was going to be difficult, and in the end impossible, and unwise, as the Government’s NBN unfolded. Whether it was Turnbull’s awareness of the logistic and legal difficulties, or whether he became aware of the growing public support for the NBN, or whether his love of communications technology overcame him, he decided he must dissuade Abbott from his pursuit of demolition. That move carried the political risk of Abbott being seen as doing a ‘backflip’, having repeatedly condemned the Government’s NBN as an obscenely expensive white elephant that the nation could not afford. Of course, Abbott doesn’t do backflips; he changes his mind – ask the media.

Last week we witnessed an unanticipated spectacle – Abbott and Turnbull launching an NBN, the Coalition’s NBN, but an NBN nonetheless. Set against a high-tech background, courtesy of the new Fox Sports Sydney headquarters complete with a hologram image of a footballer, Turnbull and Abbott, looking like snake oil salesmen, with Abbott looking out of his depth at that, launched a cheap, low-tech alternative – dubbed ‘NBN-lite’.

Because it has been done to death elsewhere, even in the mainstream media, it is not my purpose here to compare this and the Government’s NBN, except to underscore the patently obvious fact that NBN-lite is not just inferior, but portrays Abbott’s proclivity to plan for the future by looking in his rear-view mirror, to march backwards into the future.

There was a delectable take on the launch in Brisbane Times Free floppies a policy flop by John Birmingham that makes my point: “The Opposition Leader promised this week that every Australian household would receive a free floppy disk drive and monochrome monitor under an Abbott-led government. Launching the Coalition’s long awaited response to the government’s National Broadband Network program, Mr Abbott denied that providing a floppy drive and monitor without the computing box to plug them into would leave Australian households with a second best solution… If people want more they can easily spend a few thousand dollars to upgrade to a very fast 386 or even 486 computing box.”

That is closer to the truth than its satirical tone suggests. From the outset Abbott claimed that Australia’s existing broadband was fine for him to send emails and for his daughters to download movies. His implicit question was “What more do you need? He was looking in the rear-view mirror to gaze into the future. Commenting on the NBN, even journalists who might usually support Abbott’s position have characterized him as lacking vision. That is not correct. Abbott has vision all right: backward vision.

His broadband vision is restricted to email and movies. He says he ‘needs it for his work’, but has he thought about the almost unbelievable potential of super fast broadband? Has he contemplated the possibility that in the years ahead applications will emerge that have not even been thought about yet? Does he remember that when he was a boy the first mobile phone was invented – the size of a brick and weighing a kilogram – and that since then we have seen the emergence of the extraordinary technology we now have? Has he forgotten that the World Wide Web began only a little over 20 years ago? Has he even thought about the next twenty years and the demands that burgeoning applications will place on the WWW? It seems not. Does he really think the Internet will be the same twenty years from now? Whatever he thinks, he tells us that his NBN-lite is ‘good enough’ for us: "I am confident that it gives Australians what they need." Regrettably, we will never know what he thinks about the future while he looks nostalgically into his rear-view mirror and sees only the past.

Looking backwards is Abbott man’s greatest drawback as a politician and leader.

It’s not just about broadband that Abbott looks back, not forward. How many times have you heard him lament that the halcyon days of John Howard are behind us. How he would love to return to that golden era where mining revenue flowed in a torrent into Howard’s coffers, enabling Howard and Peter Costello to hand out middle class welfare and give tax breaks, especially to those on the highest salaries and superannuation, and still bring in their hallowed surplus budgets. There was no global financial crisis, no recession; there was no dire threat to our economy as they prepared their budgets, no impediment to them handing out electoral bribes come election time. Abbott yearns for those days, and berates Labor because they have not done what Howard did.

Abbott looks in his rear-view mirror, sees the Howard years, sees the ideal fiscal circumstances he enjoyed, ignores all that has occurred globally since 2007 as if it had never happened, castigates the Government for taking the actions it did to protect the economy and employment during the GFC, and pretends that had the Coalition been in power everything would have been better, with surplus budgets as usual. Abbott’s capacity to fix his gaze on the rear-view mirror and look back at the road long past travelled, his faculty to ignore the road ahead, is pathological.

And it goes on. Looking back a usual, Abbott fondly remembers the days of high demand and sky-high prices for coal and iron ore and the revenue that resulted. He still refuses to see how the scene has changed, refuses to acknowledge that as a result Government revenue has fallen by $160 billion, and that the anticipated surplus is no longer possible. His rear mirror view shows him that nothing has changed, demand and prices are as they were, and not delivering a surplus is just ‘another broken promise’.

Of all the rear mirror views Abbott relishes, one of the most cherished is the spectre of how WorkChoices brought the workforce into line, and dampened union power. He also catches sight of how damaging that restrictive and unfair policy proved to be for the Howard Government and reflects on how it was a major factor in its defeat in 2007. He is petrified at giving any hint of its return, declaring it ‘dead, buried and cremated’. But his longing continues for the ‘flexibility’ business demands. Abbott’s IR spokesman, Eric Abetz, is using language that hints strongly at Abbott’s intention. He keeps looking back, pining for those ‘good old days’. But with an election pending, looking forward to reintroducing IR changes is too fraught.

How many times have you heard him insist that returning to Howard’s magic three-legged formula for stopping the boats: offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, temporary protection visas, and turning the boats around ‘when safe to do so’, would work again just as it did then? By looking in his rear-view mirror, he is able to ignore all the changes around the world in the refugee situation, ignore all the push factors that now operate, and lay blame for the influx of arrivals on pull factors, to Labor’s leniency, to their abandonment of TPVs that the evidence showed were not just ineffective but harmful, and to their refusal to turn boats around, a maritime manoeuvre that is hazardous to service personnel as well as the boat people, one that is considered disaster-prone by senior Naval personnel, and was actually seldom done in the Howard era. Looking into his rear-view mirror Abbott sees the Howard program as ‘the answer’, the only answer: “we did it before and we will do it again”. He yearns for a return to those ‘days of yore’ when the refugee population in detention was tiny.

Take global warming. Despite his affirmation that he believes it really is occurring and that human activity is partly responsible, with his negative behaviour towards measures to reduce pollution by putting a price on carbon, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he still believes that ‘climate change is crap’, that it was ‘hotter in Jesus’ time’, and that therefore radical action is unnecessary. He still believes that planting 20 million trees and paying polluters to stop polluting will do. Again he’s looking into his rear-view mirror at climate in the long past, at the time when Dorothea Mackellar wrote of ‘droughts and flooding rains’, ignoring the constellation of severe adverse weather events that have occurred recently around the world, events that climate scientists attribute to global warming. He is able to ignore the almost universal consensus of thousands of climate scientists that global warming is real, is upon us already, will steadily escalate, and will bring with it untold catastrophes.

Looking in his rear-view mirror, he sees a world that existed before emissions trading schemes began. He still believes, indeed insists that Australia is running ahead of the world, that the trading schemes and pollution abatement programs that abound all around the world, and are proliferating every month, scarcely exist. He can’t see the evidence that is before his eyes, so fixed is he on the past. He repeats his mantra that the rest of the world is lagging behind us in emissions trading, when clearly it is not. His rear-view mirror looks back a long way.

The same mirror reflects back to him the traditional values he embraces so lovingly. During his address at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner last week, Abbott said this: “Alas, there is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.” Nobody would deny Abbott his beliefs and his values, ones refreshed by looking in his rear-view mirror, but those who are inclined to vote for him should ponder to what extent he will allow those entrenched values and beliefs to intrude on his policy making, to influence him as he fashions policies that ought to benefit all Australians. To what extent is he prepared to look forward, to see changing community attitudes to, for example, abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia? To what extent is he prepared to change his long-established viewpoint?

But his value system extends well beyond these emotion-laden issues. Looking back longingly to the Howard era he cherishes Howard’s values: support for private schools to the detriment of public schools that Howard neglected; support for private hospitals and private health insurance even if that disadvantages public hospitals; endorsement of the user pays principle, even if that leaves some behind; support for the privatization of public assets; sustenance of the powerful and the wealthy (Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart spring to mind), even if that means that trickle down economics continues to fail and the gap between the rich and the poor widens.

Indeed, voters need not only to know Abbott’s contemporary attitude to these issues, but to what extent he embraces the Institute of Public Affairs’ list of 75 radical policy changes it is recommending to him and the Coalition? Take a big breath, and read them here. This is what Abbott said about them during his IPA address: “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big “yes” to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me…! Read YaThink’s response to that.

Abbott is a traditionalist, a monarchist, a Catholic imbued with Jesuit beliefs, and ultra-conservative that hankers for long gone days, days that he gazes at through his rear-view mirror. Even his recently expressed ideas for development of the North, which some rank as ‘visionary’, are a reprise of ideas from the last century, ideas advanced by Ion Idriess seventy years ago.

Look at the people behind Abbott, and you look at relics from the past. Yet he vows to install this team unchanged should he win power. He looks in his rear-view mirror and sees his future ministers.

Abbott longs for the past; he is fearful of any future that threatens his conventional, conformist view of the world. He eschews looking forward; the past is too comfortable and reassuring to abandon.

Yet, this man wants to be the leader of this nation in this unprecedented time of change as it faces the Asian Century, as it faces unparalleled challenges both in its own economic base, and in the global economy. The turmoil ahead demands that our nation’s leader look forward at the evolving landscape and steer our country along a course of prosperity, in harmony with our neighbours and our trading partners, in tune with the evolving geopolitical situation we hear about every day of our lives, and able to align our country with the powers that can give us support and protection and enhance our own defences – a leader who is willing and able to fruitfully adapt to the dynamically evolving world around us.

Tony Abbott, a man whose eyes are fixed on his rear-view mirror, who seems unable see the road ahead, is not that leader.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Adam Bandt, Julie Bishop, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Windsor and Penny Wong.

Abbott and the Murdoch, Rinehart, Pell connection

Voters need seriously to contemplate what it would be like to have an Abbott Government. They need to dig deeper than the slick slogans, the oft repeated mantras, the weasel words, the deviousness, and the blatant lies that escape Abbott’s lips day after day. They need to ask what makes this man tick? More importantly, voters need to ask who influences Abbott, and how those influences shape the attitudes, the ideology, the behaviour, and the actions of this potential Prime Minister of our nation.

For immediate answers, voters need not look much beyond a momentous event last week – a Gala Dinner to mark the 70th Anniversary of the foundation of the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a right wing organization that grew up in 1943 after the collapse of the conservative United Australia Party. How much will those attending the Dinner shape and mould the nation’s alternative leader? To what extent will Abbott be clay in the hands of the many potters who attended?

The IPA describes itself as “an independent, non-profit public policy think tank, dedicated to preserving and strengthening the foundations of economic and political freedom". It claims that it “has been at the forefront of the political and policy debate, defining the contemporary political landscape.” To get a feel for its political orientation, read its 75 radical ideas, and note those already adopted by the would-be PM, Tony Abbott. In his address at the Gala Dinner, Abbott heaped praise on the organization: ”The IPA, I want to say, has been freedom’s discerning friend.” He lauded its director, John Roskam, previously a Liberal staffer who once ran for Liberal pre-selection.

The IPA was influential in the formation of the Liberal Party. There is no doubt about its ultra conservative orientation, and its support of the Liberal Party.

It says it is ”funded by individual memberships and subscriptions, as well as philanthropic and corporate donors.” We know Rupert Murdoch is a large donor, as was his father, but outsiders can only guess whom the others are. We are told that ‘big business’, and perhaps ‘big tobacco’ is among them, but the list is kept under wraps.

The list of invitees to the IPA Gala Dinner is not public, but we do know that the guest of honour and keynote speaker was Rupert Murdoch, that Gina Rinehart was a distinguished guest and speaker, and that Andrew Bolt was Master of Ceremonies. Apart from Tony Abbott, other Liberal luminaries were there: Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, and Shadow Attorney General George Brandis. None of these names are surprising. What I expect though came as a surprise to many outside the IPA was the presence of the most senior Catholic in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. What does his presence mean?

This piece suggests that among the many influential people present, none will exert more influence on the man who wants to be our Prime Minister than Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and George Pell; no others, not even party members, have shaped, and will shape Abbott’s clay more decisively than these master potters.

Let’s deal first with supremo Rupert Murdoch. Is there anyone with eyes to see and a brain to reason that would deny that Murdoch is intent on removing the Gillard Labor Government and replacing it at the September election with a Coalition Government led by Tony Abbott? All his utterances, all the inflammatory words his tabloids use, make this abundantly clear. It is really not worth spending more words ‘proving’ this assertion; just glance at his rabid, malevolent News Limited tabloid headlines, day after day, and at the subtler broadsheet articles that Murdoch uses to influence the business community.

Where does Abbott stand? Of course he is rapt with Murdoch’s objective. Why would he not be? When he first met Murdoch over lunch in New York shortly after he became Opposition Leader, Abbott said: “I hope he liked me”. Whatever else his critics say about him, Abbott cannot be accused of being stupid. He knows on what side his bread is buttered. Around the time of that meeting, Abbott instructed Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’. Was that a coincidence, or was it carrying out Murdoch’s instructions? The threat to Murdoch’s empire that the NBN constitutes is acknowledged. What will happen to Foxtel when real-time viewing of movies and other TV content online via the NBN is a reality? One thing Murdoch does very well is to protect his interests. What Abbott does very well is to obey his master’s instructions.

With Murdoch supporting Abbott and the Coalition’s push for power, Abbott will obsequiously go along with him. Why would he knock back all the muscular support Murdoch can provide?

Murdoch is the master potter; Abbott is eager clay in his hands.

Abbott’s obsequiousness screams out in the words he uttered in his IPA address last week: ”John Howard has said that Rupert Murdoch has been by far Australia’s most influential international businessman; but I would like to go a little further. Along with Sir John Monash, the Commander of the First AIF which saved Paris and helped to win the First World War, and Lord Florey a one-time provost of my old Oxford College, the co-inventor of penicillin that literally saved millions of lives, Rupert Murdoch is probably the Australian who has most shaped the world through the 45 million newspapers that News Corp sells each week and the one billion subscribers to News-linked programming.” Abbott went on to say of Murdoch: ”For our guest of honour, as for anyone deeply steeped in reporting, experience trumps theory and facts trump speculation. His publications have borne his ideals but never his fingerprints. They’ve been skeptical, stoical, curious, adventurous, opinionated yet broad minded. He’s influenced them, but he’s never dictated to them…”, which shows just how far Abbott will stray from the truth to stroke his master. Those who have written books about Murdoch’s commercial life testify that his editors know exactly what their master wants, and to keep their jobs, give him just that.

Who can dispute Murdoch’s influence?

What about Gina Rinehart?

She too knows how important the media is in politics, how one’s objectives can be better achieved using the power of the media. She has large shareholdings in Channel Ten where she is on its Board, and was instrumental in the creation of the ultra right wing Bolt Report. She also has shareholdings in Fairfax, where she seeks to increase her influence via Board membership, something she has not yet accomplished because of her insistence that she be able to exercise oversight of editorial orientation.

But apart from any media influence on Abbott, she clearly influences him on mining issues and minerals policy. She joined with Twiggy Forrest in public protests against the minerals tax, and in support of Abbott’s promise to abolish it. He embraces her anti-minerals tax efforts. He would give her whatever she wanted for her political support. He fawns over her when they meet. Look at the visuals here.

Their ideas about the development of an economic zone in the North match. Did Abbott embrace Rinehart’s ideas, which would be to her enormous commercial advantage, or was that just a happy coincidence?

Some of Abbott’s shadow ministers are already in her debt – in 2011 Rinehart flew Julie Bishop and Barnaby Joyce in her private jet to an extravagant three-day wedding of a prominent Indian industrialist in Hyderabad. Martin Ferguson was also invited, but declined, indicating that his attendance would have been inappropriate. But the Coalition shadow ministers obviously thought it was appropriate for them and the Liberal Party.

Does anyone doubt the profound influence Rinehart has on Abbott? He is malleable clay in her hands.

So we have master potter Murdoch moulding Abbott ideologically, philosophically, economically and commercially, and Rinehart moulding him in crucial areas of the economy, mining and development of the North.

What about Cardinal George Pell?

To me, his influence is the most alarming. No one would criticize Pell for receiving an invitation, but why would this most senior Catholic clergyman be willing to associate himself publically with an ultra conservative think tank that works hand in glove with the Liberal Party. Pell is entitled to his own political preferences, but what is he saying to his ‘flock’ when he fronts at this IPA event? Is this his way of saying to his people that Tony Abbott, the Coalition, and its conservative IPA-oriented ideology, is now ‘right’ for this nation?

I am reminded of my early days when Daniel Mannix was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, a position he held for 46 years. He exercised enormous influence politically. His sway over his flock was profound; there was many a story of how he used his clerical authority to persuade his parishioners towards his political viewpoint. In those days, his stature was a powerful inducement for his supporters to follow his lead; they had little else to guide them.

Whether Pell could exert such power over his flock today is debatable, especially with the aura of priest pedophilia and abuse that permeates the Catholic Church, a scandal that is driving Catholics away from it in droves.

Mannix's best-known protégé in his later years was B A Santamaria, a Catholic most admired by Tony Abbott, a man whose writings Abbott acknowledges still influence him profoundly.

Abbott concedes that George Pell is one of his most prominent mentors, although on one infamous occasion on the ABC’s Lateline, in the lead up to the 2004 election, Abbott lied to Tony Jones about a meeting he had had with Pell, and was subsequently caught out. Why was he so keen to deny the meeting? Perhaps to neutralize any charge that Pell was influencing him?

Abbott still consults regularly with Pell, whom he considers to be ”one of the greatest churchmen Australia has seen.” Abbott is a good Catholic boy. He attended primary school at St Aloysius' College at Milson's Point before completing his secondary school education at St Ignatius' College, Riverview in Sydney. Both are Jesuit schools. He takes his religion seriously but claims that he is able to keep politics and religion separate, something many in the health field would question. Read though the words he spoke at the Gala Dinner: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the foundation of our justice. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is the foundation of our mercy. Faith has weakened but not, I’m pleased to say, this high mindedness which faith helped to spawn and which the IPA now helps to protect and to promote.” As readers reflect on the behaviour Abbott exhibits day after day, some will smile at his ‘Do unto others’ proclamation, but that’s another matter.

It seems as if faith is important to Abbott. That is understandable and acceptable, but it does highlight the potential for Abbott being influenced politically by his religious mentors. That is worrisome. What is Pell’s agenda? To what extent is Pell a devotee of the IPA and its extreme conservative agenda? We know he shares the IPA’s skepticism about global warming. Will Pell exert his influence on contemporary politics, not directly over his flock as did Archbishop Mannix, but via his pupil Tony Abbott, a Jesuit boy, a past seminarian who once studied for the priesthood, but now in the supremely powerful position of aspirant for the highest political office in town – Prime Minister of Australia? We shall probably never know, but we are entitled to be suspicious and deeply apprehensive about this prospect.

This piece suggests that three of the most influential people in Abbott’s political life are media mogul Rupert Murdoch, mining mogul Gina Rinehart, and Catholic Cardinal George Pell, all of whom coalesced at the 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner of the ultra conservative Institute of Public Affairs, which openly boasts about its political influence, which in truth is its raison d'être. This is not an inexplicable coincidence.

In the run down to September 14, we can expect these three to redouble their efforts. Murdoch and Rinehart will exercise their influence overtly. These master potters will fashion the soft malleable Abbott clay shamelessly to suit their own ends, commercial and ideological.

We can anticipate too that Cardinal Pell will continue to exercise his influence, yet subtly and covertly. This master potter will mould Abbott with as much authority as the others, perhaps even more profoundly. Yet we, the voting public, will likely never be the wiser. Therein lies our predicament.

What do you think?

If you intend to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Mathias Cormann, Craig Emerson, Martin Ferguson, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong, and Nick Xenophon.

What was Leigh Sales’ intent with PM Gillard?

As Leigh Sales interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 7.30 last week, was she hoping it might remind viewers of her interview of Tony Abbott six months earlier, one that attracted widespread applause for its probing, her persistence, and her command of the interview? Looking back, she may be disappointed that this time she came off second best, that she showed her hand so early in the interview, and that she exposed so openly her disdain for our nation's leader.

Her opening gambit, before her subject had had a chance to avoid a question or to obfuscate, gave her game away: ”After recent events, aren't Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?” Note her words: ”dysfunctional mess” and ”consigned to opposition as soon as possible”. Judgemental? Of course. Pejorative? Yes. A good way to start? No.

Her opening remark begs the question: “What was Sales’ intent for this interview with the nation’s leader?” To embarrass? To belittle? To intimidate? To set up the interview to give Sales the upper hand? To serve as an introduction to the issue of ‘trust’ that she intended to pursue later? Only Sales would know if any of these applied.

The interview has been forensically analysed by journalism expert Peter Clarke in Anatomy of Sales -v- Gillard interview in Australians for Honest Politics. His analysis is from the point of view of an expert in media interviews, especially with politicians. It is worth a read if for no other reason than it gives an academic journalist’s perspective. This piece does not attempt to replicate or compete with that analysis; instead it attempts to analyse the interview through the eyes of an ordinary citizen, one who viewed it as it occurred.

My first reaction was emotional. Why was this senior journalist assailing our PM from the beginning? I wondered why was she so rude, so disrespectful of the most senior politician in the country. My annoyance increased as the interview progressed in the same vein. So infuriated was I that at the end I sent an email to Mark Scott, MD of the ABC, protesting at Sales’ impertinence, poor manners and disrespect.

On reflection, I asked myself what Sales’ intent really was, and came up with the following possibilities.

I imagine that primarily she wanted this interview to be lauded as was her interview of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on 7.30 on 22 August, for which she won a Walkley Award. The citation said that she “pressed him on his attack on the Government over the mining tax and carbon tax. The fiery exchanges saw Mr Abbott eventually admit he had not read a statement from miner BHP which was central to the attack.”

For her to have the same intent for the Gillard interview as she did for the Abbott one is understandable, even laudable.

But what other intent did Sales have?

Did she set out deliberately to demean and insult the PM, to show her, and her high office, disrespect?

If that were so, is that an acceptable intent for a senior journalist? And even if it were acceptable, ought it to have been so overt, so up front? If it was not Sales’ intent, she certainly messed up badly from the outset.

One would hope that, like any competent TV journalist interviewing a politician, she would have intended to elicit relevant information: facts and figures, explanations, reasons, opinions, plans and policies, information that would enlighten the viewer, information that would assist the viewer to make an assessment that would be useful come election day.

Let’s see what she did achieve in this regard by analyzing her questions and the responses they evoked.

PM Julia Gillard responded to Sales brusque opening question by agreeing that she too was ‘appalled’ by the week, but argued that in the end people would judge the Government on what it had achieved, on its plans. She then listed its achievements.

Sales brushed that aside, and elaborated on what emerged as her central agenda: ”But you say that people should look to your plans for the future. Why should we trust Labor's plans for the future when you've had so many problems and so much dysfunction in your past?” Building on the notion of ‘dysfunction’, Sales now makes overt the issue of ‘trust’, a dependable theme for any political journalist.

This time it is the PM that brushes aside Sales’ direct question of trust. She answers obliquely by reiterating the considerable achievements of her Government, implying that the people can trust a Government that gets so much done. Critics would label PM Gillard’s response as obfuscation, or at least avoidance of the question.

Sales was having nothing of her answer. Labelling the Government’s achievements somewhat pejoratively as ‘a laundry list’, she cheekily assails the PM with: ”let me give you one back”. Sales then reads her own list, the theme this time being a list of ‘broken promises’, and ‘mistakes’, leading to ”how do you expect the public to have any faith in what you're planning to do going forwards?” Here we see more on the ‘trust’ theme – but now it’s nuanced to ‘broken promises’ and ‘faith’. She was not going to let go of that. Viewers could be excused if they saw this as echoing the Coalition’s ‘who do you trust’ theme, used first during the 2004 election campaign by John Howard, now repeated by Tony Abbott.

The PM offered to go through Sales’ long list of ‘misdemeanors’, but Sales was not interested: ”But Prime Minister, you're not addressing my central problem there, which was that there was a broken promise ...”, and when the PM said she disagreed with her list, Sales interrupted with ”No, no, there was a broken promise there and there is a long list of initiatives that the Government has introduced that have been failures or have not come to fruition. The most recent of course last week, the media reforms. Let me put it to you ...” And when the PM addressed Sales’ list, ending with the live cattle export issue, she interrupted again with: ”It was very messy in the way that it was done though.” Sales was determined to hammer the PM relentlessly with her ‘long list’ of ‘broken promises’, ‘failures’, ‘messiness’. She was not going to let the PM escape, just as she had not allowed Abbott to escape. That was her intent – no escape!

She is now almost half way through her twelve-minute interview, and has not asked one question that might elicit useful information about policies and plans. All the questions had centered on trust, faith, broken promises, mistakes, misdemeanors, and messiness. If that was her intent, she was certainly on song.

There was no way the PM was going to respond to the accusation of messiness, so she pressed on: ”Now, on the rest of the list, you can keep going through it, but when we've worked through some very difficult things like carbon pricing, our eyes have always been on what is best for the nation, what's in the national interest, what's in the interest of a strong, prosperous, fair, smart future and I am very happy to be judged on that.”

Not to be deterred from her claim of messiness in governance, Sales cited the concerns of Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean about the process of government, and in particular the media law reform last week, quoting them as saying that ”it was mishandled and that it was a debacle.”, adding: ”Doesn't that go to the very heart of the way you run government when senior ministers in your own team have stepped down and made that criticism?”

The PM responded by acknowledging the centrality of cabinet debate and went on to explain the protracted processes that preceded the presentation of the media bills.

But Sales, like other commentators, had already decided that the process was appalling, so pressed on with: ”How is it good government that your minister, presumably with your approval, produced legislation with a minimal consultation of cabinet and the caucus and then demanded it be passed in just a week's time without amendments and without negotiation?”?

As the PM reiterated the prior inquiries (Convergence and Finkelstein reviews), Sales interrupted with: ”… I'm just asking why you put legislation up with one week's notice and said, "No negotiation, no amendments".” Sales sounded like a schoolmistress reprimanding a wayward schoolgirl.

Julia Gillard patiently went through the reviews again, but again Sales, somewhat defensively, interposed with: ”Well the content of the reports of the reviews weren't unknown, but the content of the legislation was unknown until Stephen Conroy produced it.”

The PM again pointed out that the changes had been publicized in the newspapers, and after more interruptions, Sales retorted: ”If we judge the process on the end result, you put up six pieces of legislation and only two of them got through, so therefore on any assessment you'd have to agree that it was a mishandled and a botched process.”

She was not going to let go of her portraiture of the Gillard Government as one characterized by mistakes, misdemeanors, mishandling, and messiness.

The PM pointed out that in a minority government everything had to be negotiated and that she ”wasn't prepared to cross-trade and do any deal to get these bills through”, but Sales came back, rather sarcastically, with: ”So you were quite happy with how that process was handled last week from woe to go, the media reforms?”

Once again, PM Gillard began to explain the process, but perhaps sensing the pointlessness of this in the face of a obstinate interviewer ended with: "…our focus has to be relentless on what it is we need to do to strengthen our nation for the future and what we need to do to support families today.”

Three quarters of the interview, nine minutes, had already elapsed, without one question that probed policy issues. All had focussed on trust, and what Sales saw as mistakes, misdemeanors, messiness and botched process. Now it was time to assail the PM with leadership issues: ”You said today that last week's events make it clear now that you have the confidence of your colleagues. Isn't the reality though that many of your colleagues are in despair about your leadership and about the ALP's prospects in the election, but that they just don't see a viable alternative?” Sales’ provocation continued.

Julia Gillard, whose patience must now have been wearing thin, replied briefly that her leadership had been tested once again and that she had the ‘emphatic’ endorsement of the party. She concluded: ”Leigh, it's over. I don't think that any of this is worth speaking about anymore.” But Sales was not finished, adding condescendingly: ”But you can understand, can't you, how Australians would be looking at your side of politics and feeling very nervous about taking a gamble on you again given that a number of senior members of your own cabinet have stepped down in recent days, criticized the process by which you govern and basically indicated they don't have any confidence or faith in your leadership?”

Once more, our PM, with patience that most of us would have difficulty mustering, repeated that the events of last week were indeed appalling and self-indulgent, but finished with: ”What is then appropriate for me as Prime Minister is to renew the team with quality and talent and that's what I've done today.”

But her mea culpa was not enough for Sales who impudently came back with another ‘but’: ”But Prime Minister, I don't think that Australians can quite so neatly as you have done draw a line under everything they've seen for the past few years and then just ignore it and do what you want them to do which is to concentrate on what you're promising going forwards.” Sales obviously believes she has her finger on the pulse of the nation.

The ever patient Gillard concluded this wearisome interview with a confident assertion that she and Labor were in the best position to lead our nation ” through in what can be a very rough and tumble world.”

Twelve minutes had elapsed, the interview was over, but not one question had addressed policy details, or plans, or prospects for our nation in the Asian Century under Labor, and under the alternative, the very matters about which voters need to be informed. Every question was directed to issues of trust, to Sales’ recital of the broken promises, the mistakes, the misdemeanors, the messiness, the mishandlings, the botched processes, which by implication brought into question Labor’s and the PM’s competence to govern. And at the end came the ubiquitous leadership issue; no journalist worth his or her salt would miss that.

Will this interview win Sales another Walkley Award? Perhaps a Wonkley!

It is easy to be critical, so let’s examine how Sales might have approached the interview. Here are some possible questions, ones that would address the matters that Sales had on her agenda, as well as policy matters:

Prime Minister, it has been a tumultuous week for you and Labor. How do you plan to overcome the damage that you yourself acknowledge has been done to the Labor brand?

You have said that the leadership issue is now ‘done and dusted’, and you have emerged as the leader, seemingly now beyond challenge. How will you approach the task of healing the wounds that have been inflicted by this latest leadership challenge, particularly among those who supported Kevin Rudd, many of whom have resigned?

Are you confident that there will be no more leadership challenges and no more sabotage by Rudd supporters?

There have been criticisms from both within your party and from without about how some legislation has been presented; I’m referring specifically to the recent media law reforms. Would you care to comment about this, and whether the four bills that were not presented will be presented when parliament next meets.

Do you think these bills might have passed if more time had been available for their consideration?

John Howard made a feature of ‘trust’ in his 2004 campaign, and Mr Abbott has often labelled you as ‘untrustworthy’. How do you plan to engender a sense of trust among voters?

The opinion polls suggest that voters have doubts about Labor’s capacity to manage the nation’s affairs into the next term, and concerns about your leadership. How do you propose to address these doubts and concerns?

You have several important pieces of legislation in progress but not yet complete; I’m referring specifically to the NDIS and the Gonski reforms to school education. Many have queried how these desirable reforms can be funded now and in the future. While I’m not asking you to reveal budget discussions, can you give us some insight into how you are approaching the funding issue?

Much has been made of the harm that the carbon tax is doing to the economy. What evidence is there about its impact to date?

Has it made any difference to Australia’s carbon emissions?

You have been accused of promising that there would be no carbon tax under a government you lead, and the Opposition has continually assailed you with this. How will you counter that accusation of lying?

You have spoken of the Asian Century. Could you elaborate for me how Australia might take advantage of it?

Explain to me and to our viewers how Labor’s policies would be more beneficial to this country than the Coalition’s.

One could go on and on in this vein.

No doubt, those who enjoy seeing our PM hammered mercilessly applauded Leigh Sales' interview, and would categorize the above questions as insufficiently probing, far too soft, or even as Dorothy Dixers. But they would at least stand a chance of eliciting answers that would inform voters about the PM’s intentions, her trustworthiness, her capacity to lead, Labor’s plans for the time ahead, and how it compared with the alternative. Their intent would be to uncover informative facts, opinions, policies and plans.

In contrast, the intent of Leigh Sales’ interview seemed to be to demean, to belittle, to show disrespect for our PM, and by implication the office of PM. It focussed on a collection of what Sales considered were Labor’s and the PM’s failings, misdemeanors, and botched processes. She seemed intent on hammering issues of trust and leadership, implying that trust was irrecoverable and leadership still in doubt. If these indeed were her intentions, and also to expose her own feelings about, and attitudes towards the PM and the party she leads, she succeeded brilliantly.

Viewers were left no wiser though about Labor’s policies or plans for the next six months and the next term. If it was Sales intent to inform them, she failed miserably, but that seems to have not been on her agenda. Only she would know; we can judge only on what we saw.

Words are but one aspect of communication. View the video and observe her tone of voice and her body language yourself.

Despite her overt hostility, Sales lost control of the interview as Julia Gillard calmly and patiently answered each thrust she made. In contrast to her Abbott interview, this time she came out the loser, in more ways than one.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the prospect that Sales’ attitude may reflect an emerging culture at the ABC among some journalists there – one antagonistic to the PM and Labor, a culture that gives ‘permission’ to lesser journalists to follow Sales’ lead. The crucial question is whether ABC Managing Director Mark Scott permits such a culture. Viewers will be watching carefully in future with this question in mind.

What do you think?

If you intend to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to: Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, Tony Burke, Doug Cameron, Jason Clare, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Simon Crean, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, David Feeney, Martin Ferguson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Peter Garrett, Ed Husic, Andrew Leigh, Jenny Macklin, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Amanda Rishworth, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Tony Windsor and Penny Wong.

Polls perpetually poison politics

Imagine that last Thursday an alien arrived from Mars. He picked up the papers and read that the leader of this nation is under threat of losing her position. He wondered why. He is surprised that she is female.

He speaks to a normal-looking local. For the sake of this piece, let’s imagine the alien from Mars is male [bold type] and the normal looking local is female [italics].

What has she done? Has she made a heinous error? Did she say something unbecoming for a national leader? Did she make a blasphemous or libelous accusation against a religion or an opponent or a citizen? Was she absent without leave? Was she neglecting her duties? Had she committed treason? Did she insult so many in her party that they viciously turned against her? She must have done something awful, something so serious that it warranted grave questioning of her capacity to lead.

No, none of the above. She hasn’t sinned in any of these ways.

Why then the frenzied talk about her leadership?

The answer astonishes the Martian.

She is deemed to be in deep trouble because of opinion polls.

Opinion polls?

You don’t know opinion polls? Really, let me explain. We have organizations, usually owned by newspapers that make a business of asking people how they would vote.

How do they do that?

Well, most of them use telephones to call up people. They call people with landlines because it’s too difficult and too expensive calling mobile phones; we have both you know.

I understand, we have mobiles too; every youngster has one. But doesn’t that mean that those with mobiles miss out – doesn’t that leave out a lot of younger people?

Yes, I know it distorts the sample, because young people vote differently from the old, but that’s the best pollsters can do.

How do they pick those they phone?

They take random picks from the telephone book but they try to select what they call a representative sample from all over the country and all age groups.

How many?

It varies from as few as 400, to as many as a thousand or two. The more the better, you know.

That doesn’t seem to be a lot.

No, but it’s too costly to call up a bigger number.

How do you know the number they choose is enough to be accurate?

They have ways of calculating that, but with the usual numbers phoned, there is the possibility of error. For around a thousand phoned, the error can be around 3% too high or 3% too low.

That doesn’t seem too precise.

Well no, but it’s the best they can do without going broke. What’s more, it only the statistically minded that worry about error – they call it the ‘margin of error’ – most don’t know or care about that; they take the figures as gospel.

But I still don’t understand why these pollsters are asking people how they would vote – are you having an election?

No, not for six months.

Then what’s the point? Wouldn’t it better to wait until they actually vote in six months, then everyone would know exactly how people voted?

Well, you’re right, but there’s a lot of money to be made out of asking beforehand.

How’s that?

I know it sounds crazy, but there are a lot of people who think they can predict the election outcome from these polls, and there’s a lot of money to be made out of prediction – it sells lots of newspapers, fills countless TV and radio bulletins, and gives lots of journalists a job writing endlessly about the polls. It’s about the easiest job in journalism, but I suppose it keeps them in work.

Well, CAN they predict the outcome of elections?

No they can’t.

Then why on earth, if a Martian is allowed to use that phrase, do they do it?

Good question. The answer is that there are lots of people, in fact the majority of people, who, because they know nothing about polls or statistics, believe that polls do accurately predict events that are months away, even years away.

It seems then that they are being conned.

Yes they are, but those doing the conning, the media proprietors, are making a packet out of this. No con artist is going to give up his act unless he’s hauled before the courts, and that’s not going to happen – the media moguls are too powerful.

So do you mean to tell me that although polls are unable to predict the future, the pollsters still do them and the media still publishes the results, and write about what they mean?

Afraid so. I don’t blame the pollsters – they all agree that they are not predictive, but the media makes so much money conning the public they are predictive, that they go on, week after week, month after month, year after year. They sell papers, make great headlines, excite political journalists, and help to keep the print media moguls afloat at a time they are steadily sinking, because people are switching to online media.

In fact, only the other day, Peter Lewis, who runs a weekly poll, Essential Report, said on TV: “A poll can never predict the future”, and “Anyone who says they know what the future holds is deluded.” All pollsters, and all who study polls, say virtually the same. In fact, a couple of days ago one of the few journalists to write rationally about polls, John Watson, managed to get a column in one of our major newspapers titled: ‘Penchant for picking a winner is poll waffle’ that concluded: “One might hope commentators learn from past predictive follies and leave fortune telling to the charlatans and crackpots.” Unfortunately, no one will take any notice of him or what the pollsters say, because it doesn’t suit their case.

That sounds to be a monumental con job. I’ve never heard of anything like that!

Actually, it’s even worse than it sounds. Politicians themselves have fallen for the con. They are so convinced that the current polls are accurately predicting a devastating defeat for the party in power at present that even members of that party believe they need to change the leader to improve the polls. And practically every poll, and every commentary, reinforces this view. Which brings us back to where we started!

Our female leader is condemned because a series of opinion polls of voting intention of the national electorate have shown that her party is not doing well and she is not popular. So some of her own party have turned against her and have been agitating for her replacement by a previous leader. It’s been going on a long while, and came to a head over a year ago when the previous leader and his supporters mounted a challenge, but he lost, getting only a third of the votes of the party. Everyone thought that would be the end of it, even the pretender, but he, and his supporters, were so convinced of his messianic attributes, so convinced that elevating him to the throne would improve the party’s polling, that they continued to sabotage the leader, month after month, leaking damaging tidbits to political journalists, who were hungry to devour every morsel of it because they, and their editors and proprietors, wanted to get rid of her party and her with it. They published column after column predicting her political demise, thereby adding fuel to the fire, a self-perpetuating cycle of doom and gloom they hoped would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The Martian scratches his head.

You know that polls of voting intention six months before an election are worthless, indeed worse than that, they are seriously misleading. You know that they can’t predict who will win. You say that pollsters know that, but media outlets find the polling game so lucrative that they continue the charade, and even the politicians, whom might be expected to know they were being conned, go along with the charade, and worse than that, use polls in an attempt to get rid of the leader by saying she can’t lead them to victory at the election because the polls say so, and therefore the old leader needs to be brought back. Bizarre!

Well, he was popular once, but that popularity slipped and the opinion polls went down, so his colleagues lost faith in him and threw him out for the current female leader.

I don’t understand. If they lost faith in him, why would they want him back?

Because of the polls. They say he is now more popular with the people than the female leader, and the polls also say he would be more likely to win the election.

But you said the polls are not predictive of what will happen at an election. So why would you rely on them, indeed use them to change leaders? Seems to me you are backing an outcome, but you have no idea of the odds? You have no idea at all that changing leaders will make things better or worse, and if you did, by how much. Yet, you tell me that intelligent people want to do that. How come they think in this wacky way?

You might well ask. But don’t expect me to give a sensible answer! It defies reason and logic. Frankly, I think emotion has got the better of their brains. They are so upset at what the polls commentators are telling them: that the party is doomed and that they will lose their seats in parliament; they are so scared, that they are acting on emotional autopilot. They are so convinced there is train wreck ahead (the commentators remind them of that every day), that they are frantically pulling levers, trying to put on the brakes, mindlessly shouting orders, and covertly working on plots to oust the leader, the female leader. They are in a state of panic. Anything might happen.

I see you are open-mouthed, but this is for real. In one of our papers, The Global Mail, Chris Wallace wrote an article called ‘ALP Noir: Serial Leader Slaughter’ that began: “Opinion-poll-fuelled bloodlust is the common factor. Opinion polls don’t kill politicians, politicians kill politicians, right? Just like guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well, I don’t buy that line from the National Rifle Association in the US, and I don’t buy it in relation to opinion polls in Australia, in relation to the serial political slaughter that’s gone on here in recent years, either.” Later she says: “Our polity has become absurdly sensitized to opinion polls, aided and abetted by bored journalists for whom only regicide and elections amuse the jaded palate.”

’Regicide’ is a pretty strong word. That’s not how we Martians imagined Earthlings would behave.

Sorry to disillusion you, but that’s the reality! They are talking of urgent action, even perhaps today, to kill off the female leader. Politically of course – we are not complete savages!

I guess I’d better stick around. This could be interesting.


What happened?

You won’t believe this, but the saboteurs in the ranks that have been undermining the leader reckoned they had enough of their mates on side to topple her, so one of them took it on himself to demand that the leader declare vacant her position, and that of her deputy, and have a secret ballot, but he didn’t bother to tell the pretender to the leadership. Then the female leader caught them all short by announcing: “OK, let’s have the ballot this afternoon”, in just over two hours!

Now this is bizarre! The guy who wanted to be leader again seemed to be caught off guard. He quickly got his troops to count the numbers, but despite their best efforts, they came up short of a majority. Now he was scared witless of getting knocked off again, so he said he wouldn’t stand. He wanted an absolute assurance that he would win this time, and when he knew he couldn’t, he chickened out.

So they all went into the meeting, the leader and deputy leader’s positions were declared vacant, nominations were called, but the only nominations were the ones already in those positions! So there was no ballot, and both the leader and her deputy were appointed again, unopposed. It was all over in a few minutes.

I’m gob-smacked. What an weird way of doing business!

You’re not wrong. But there’s more. The guys who were trying to topple her were soon spitting chips. As it turned out, they got only six more votes than last time, nowhere near what they needed, although they kept telling everyone that it was ‘very close’.

Naturally they felt embarrassed, annoyed, let down by the pretender, and with much egg on their face – not actual egg of course, that’s just one of our odd sayings for making a very big mistake.

They were so mad, so humiliated, that they came out, one after the other, and resigned – that’s the British way of doing it when you’ve stuffed up – very honourable!

So the female leader found others to replace them. There’s a feeling around that she’ll be better off without the saboteurs and able to get on with her job without having to look over her shoulder the whole time. Anyway, time will tell how it all works out.

So you’re telling me that all this extraordinary behavior, all those astonishing moves, all the plotting, all the sabotage, and the meeting that did nothing and changed nothing, came about because of opinion polls. Yet these polls don’t predict the future, don’t tell anyone who is going to win the election in six months. I can’t get my mind around that.

That’s right. And this charade has been played not just by the politicians, but aided and abetted, day after day, by the media, its journalists jostling with each other for the juiciest story, the exclusive, the scoop, the brilliant prediction of the time and place of the leader’s political demise. And they were all wrong. And are they furious! They regard themselves as the pundits, the insiders, but once more they have been caught short, and played for suckers. We are waiting to see upon whom they will vent their spleen.

Well, as I believe you say here on Earth, ‘you could knock me down with a feather’.

Seems to me that polls poison politics, and everyone caught up in their tentacles. Why on earth do you have them, literally?

I told you – they are money spinners for the owners, easy copy for languid journalists, great entertainment for poll watchers and sharp tools for subversive politicians. They are pointless, but there’s no way we will ever get rid of them.

Here on Earth it is true to say: “Polls perpetually poison politics”. Twelve months ago Ad Astra wrote ‘How opinion polls poison politics’. Sadly, since then polls have poisoned politics even more profoundly.

OK, but I still don’t understand; there must be something wrong wih my Martian brain.

No, it’s not your brain, it’s ours!

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How to vote: first examine your values

How do voters decide on where to cast their vote? For some it is automatic, even unthinking. They have voted this way before, maybe always. They are the rusted-on voters.

For many though, it's a question of “What’s in it for me?” “What will I gain if I vote this way and what will I lose?” The party matters less than the gains that each pledges, and the losses each threatens.

There is another group. Its members weighs up the pros and cons of each party’s platform and selects the ones that align best with their individual values, beliefs and ideology. These are the thoughtful; they probably comprise many of the so-called ‘undecideds’, who in a recent Essential poll sat at 16%, with another 31% saying: ‘I am leaning in one direction, but it could change.’ In other words, 47% could still vote either way on September 14. These are the ones who decide who wins – the swinging voters. How do they decide?

If one can judge from comments in the Fifth Estate, many of this group has well-established views about society in a democracy and how it ought to operate. They have their policy preferences and their biases. They have attitudes towards the leaders, and know what they like and dislike about them.

This piece attempts to tease out what it is that separates the major parties ideologically, how this is reflected in policy, and how this influences voting behaviour.

The Liberals, the Nationals, the Greens and Labor all have party platforms available on the Internet that depict their values, ideologies, policies and plans. They make informative reading. You can look at them here:
Liberal Party: (24 pages).
National Party of Australia: (57 pages).
The Greens: (43 policies).
Labor Party: (268 pages).

There has been a tendency for the uninformed to mouth what I believe to be an inanity: ‘They are all the same anyway’, implying ‘What does it matter for whom we vote’, followed by the unrealistic proposition: ‘If the party we vote for is no good, we can throw it out!’ This is not only ridiculous; it is a cop-out, a lame excuse for not thinking, for not looking for the things that separate the parties. There are plenty, yet a glance through the party platforms shows striking similarities. They all embrace laudable objectives that on superficial inspection seem quite similar, which may explain why some believe the parties really are ‘all the same’.

And of course there are also similarities among politicians: the ruthlessness, the ambition, the primeval urge to claw to the top, the factionalism, the disingenuousness, the spin and the use of the glib slogan, as well as common decency and a desire to make this country a better place. But there are deep and enduring differences in philosophy, ideology, attitudes and values that starkly separate politicians and parties.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to examine the party platforms by using a rather crude process to identify their major attributes – searching for key words and phrases in their platforms.

My first observation is that all party platforms and policies enshrine commendable objectives such as a robust economy and strong employment. All support good education and health care systems. They all insist that they want a fair society, opportunities for all, and support for the disadvantaged and the disabled. It is only when these policies are applied that the stark differences become apparent, and they are stark.

Let’s look at some areas to tease out these differences, beginning with the economy.

The economy
It is this aspect of governance that show up the differences most noticeably. Bill Clinton is often quoted as saying: “It’s the economy, stupid”, and it is. But I suspect he was referring to the need for a strong and growing economy. All parties in this country would agree with him, but the angle I wish to emphasize here is not that objective, but how different parties believe it can and should be achieved.

The Liberals place great value on ‘the right to be independent, to own property and to achieve’ and the ‘creation of wealth and competitive enterprise’. The Nationals do too, but seem to give the economy less emphasis.

The Greens believe that ’a prosperous and sustainable economy relies upon a healthy natural environment’ and that ’the pursuit of continuous material-based economic growth is incompatible with the planet’s finite resources.’

The Labor Party emphasizes the need for a strong and growing economy with employment opportunities for all who can work.

Note the subtle differences. The Coalition values enterprise, competition and independence with less emphasis on employment; labour is seen as a vehicle that enables enterprises to prosper. The Greens’ support of the economy is subject to its compatibility with a healthy environment. Labor sees the economy as providing jobs and prosperity for all.

These differences create the tension that exists, and has existed for centuries, between enterprise and labour. This is described in a piece on Turn Left 2013, that was written by Flora Tristan way back in 1843. Titled Workers’ Union, it describes the awful struggle that women had in that era achieving decent working conditions. Then, there was grotesque exploitation of labour by management – low wages, poor working conditions, child labour, and no benefits. Of course working conditions are much, much better now, but the tension continues.

Business and industry insists there must be more ‘flexibility’ in working conditions, which is code for workers working when management wants them to, poorer working conditions and entitlements, and lower wages and benefits. The struggle goes on to this day. For example, those in tourism and the catering industry are insisting they cannot turn a decent profit if they have to pay penalty rates at weekends, which they insist are just working days that should attract ordinary wages.

Unions battle for better working conditions, sometimes overegging their claims; management tries to whittle them back to improve competitiveness and profit. It is where political parties position themselves on the ‘management – labour’ spectrum that exposes their values and attitudes.

You will all recall how the public reacted to the punitive aspects of John Howard’s WorkChoices, legislated when he controlled both houses. He acknowledges he went too far, as do many of his ministers, so much so that Tony Abbott is scared witless about changing industrial relations in a way that suggests a return to WorkChoices, which long ago he declared was dead and buried, and for good measure, cremated as well. Very dead! It was electoral poison then and was a major factor in the Coalition’s 2007 electoral loss, and it is still poison. It is a metaphor for the political danger of taking extreme positions. Similarly, unions who adopt extreme positions in the other direction, also take dangerous political risks.

So here is the battlefield. Business and industry takes entrepreneurial risks, invest money and resources, and seek a healthy return and consistent profits. Enterprise generally seeks to engage its workforce for the least outlay. Those representing the workforce seek to ensure good wages and conditions, and security for workers.

If you imagine the tension has dissipated, think about the contemporary ‘457 visa’ row. Unions, workers, and the Government insist that some employers are abusing the system with overseas workers being brought in when local labour is available, leading to Australians missing out on jobs, and a lowering of wages in the affected sectors. Instances have been quoted, sufficient for Government to legislate a tightening up of the 457 visa system. The Coalition reacted by denying the problem, linking it to ‘the Government’s failed border protection policy’.

This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of the 457 system, but simply to highlight the reaction to the plan to revise it. Business groups screamed blue murder, insisting the scheme was vital in some sectors (no one is denying that) and that abuses were minimal. It seemed reluctant to accept that there ought to be more emphasis on training locals in preference to importing foreigners. It labelled the Government’s moves as xenophobic, Pauline Hanson style. Returning from overseas, Peter Anderson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, although conceding that there had been problems with 457 visas, nevertheless lambasted the Government’s moves on the basis of a headline in Singapore’s The Straits Times, insisting that the crackdown on the 457 visa scheme was getting bad publicity in Asia, and expressing the fear that it might damage Australia's reputation and create a backlash against Australian workers and companies in Australia.

This is yet another example of the tension between those in business and industry and their workforce.

There are those who take the extreme view that enterprise ought to be given the breaks because entrepreneurs are the ‘wealth creators’ who provide jobs for the workers. They take this view on the basis that the wealth they create trickles down to those at the bottom of the pile. That this is often little more than crumbs falling from the rich man’s table is illustrated in a graph from John Quiggin’s book Zombie Economics - How dead ideas still walk among us. In a paragraph headed Death – the rich get richer and the poor go nowhere, Quiggin uses a telling graph of household income in the US over a 36 year period, from 1967 to 2003. Do take a look. It shows that while those in the top 5% increased their income by over 60% in that period, those in the bottom 10% did not increase it at all, and even those on the 50th percentile, the half way mark, increased by less than 10%. It was only those on the 80th percentile or above that showed a substantial increase. The top half boomed; the bottom half stagnated. Not much trickle down there.

The theory of ‘trickle-down economics’ has been thoroughly debunked, yet it is still the base on which the Republicans in the US and their extreme partners, The Tea Party, build their case for not increasing taxes on the rich or taking away their tax breaks, preferring expenditure cuts that would adversely affect the poor and the disadvantaged. This was at the root of the dispute termed ‘the fiscal cliff’, which continues to this day. The conservative parties here, and the Coalition governments around this country, embrace the same doctrine and the ideology on which it is based. It might not be as extreme here, but it is nonetheless a driving force behind Coalition economic policy. Listen to Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce and Cory Bernardi and your will hear the same dogma. Don’t bother listening to what Tony Abbott says; he says what ever suits his audience of the moment.

Yet another example of the tension between business and its workforce is the push by governments to achieve a budget surplus. All parties seek this outcome, but conservative parties believe budgeting for a surplus is an imperative even if the social consequences are dire. Labor pushed for a surplus for the current financial year in the belief that it was prudent economic policy to return to surplus after a period of stimulus. And it was. As it turned out, falling revenue meant that to achieve a surplus severe expenditure cuts would be needed that would slow the economy and increase unemployment. The Government chose to abandon its quest for a budget surplus and instead to support economic growth and growth in jobs, knowing it would be ridiculed by the Coalition for not achieving its aim, and breaking yet another ‘promise’.

On the other hand, Coalition governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, which continue to pursue budget surpluses, have demonstrated whom it is that suffers – those in education, health, other services, and of course the public service. Savage cuts in these areas in Queensland reduced Campbell Newman’s net popularity from +23 to -13, a 46% drop in six months. In Victoria, Ted Bailleau, who resisted wage increases to nurses, paramedics and teachers, and who savagely cut TAFE funding, found he had lost the confidence of his party room and resigned. His successor, Denis Napthine seems to understand that he has to be less fanatical in achieving a surplus.

Conservative governments also eschew debt, insisting that governments must live within their means, notwithstanding the fact that almost one in two Australian households have a home mortgage that takes many, many years to pay off, and three out of four have credit card debt. It’s apparently OK for households to go into debt when circumstances demand, but not governments. You will recall the resistance of the Coalition to the second and larger tranche of Government’s stimulus package during the GFC. Presumably the Coalition would have preferred to keep the debt down rather than keeping people in work and safeguarding small and large business. Labor preferred the opposite, and in doing so protected our economy from recession, steering it to be the best in the world today, with the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the developed world.

Although we have touched almost exclusively on the economy, these examples vividly illustrate the stark difference between progressive (Labor) parties and conservative (Coalition) parties.

Because this piece is already long enough, comparison of the parties and the contrasts they throw up in other areas of governance needs to be left for another time.

This piece asserts that indeed ‘it is the economy, stupid’. It most influences voter thinking, but in a subtle way.

Although Australia has the most prosperous and vibrant economy in the developed world with parameters that finance ministers the world over envy, this will not be sufficient for many voters. They have come to expect such economic strength, and give the Government little credit for having brought it about. Therefore the driving force behind thoughtful voters’ decisions at election time is likely to be the extent to which each party matches the values they hold dear.

The two major parties exhibit almost diametrically opposed values. Progressive parties value jobs and economic growth more than running budget surpluses and retiring debt. Conservative parties detest debt and insist on running surpluses to pay it off, more than they value full employment and economic growth. The behaviour of contemporary Federal and State governments provides the supporting evidence this assertion requires.

Progressive parties place great store in social justice. By their actions, conservative parties appear to place more emphasis on commercial success. Labor values fairness and opportunity for all, seeks to achieve an equitable balance between incomes and wealth across the population, and supports the disadvantaged. In contrast, the Coalition decries what it describes as ‘a sense of entitlement’ that it says afflicts much of the electorate, ironically having created much of it in the first place. It takes a neo-liberal free market approach. It prefers to support the entrepreneurs, the wealth creators: business and industry, and casts as villains those who support working conditions: Labor, and of course the unions, whose officials it describes as thugs. The contrast between the parties is striking.

This comparison, this contrast, ought to influence thinking voters, who ought to vote according to their values. I wonder if they will, come September 14?

What do you think?

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Cool courage trumps cringing cowardice

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.

For many of the opinionistas, PM Gillard is Humpty Dumpty. They insist that she has had a great fall, indeed one fall after another, and no amount of effort by the king’s men can ever put her together again, no amount of effort can give her an election winning edge. This is certainly the view of the vitriolic Niki Savva and her ilk; the News Limited coterie: Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, David Spears – you know them all; the Fairfax opinionistas: Peter Hartcher, and the ‘new’ Michelle Grattan, now at The Conversation, but writing exactly the same anti-Gillard spiel as before, now under a cloak of academic respectability; turncoat and Eddie Obeid friend Graham Richardson, valued by the anti-Gillard camp because of his prior Labor connections; and a vast array of Coalition has-beens: Peter Reith, Michael Kroger and Graeme Morris are just a few of these particularly venomous critics that pop up over and again. If I may borrow a Coalition phrase, ‘these people’ are the ones who paint our PM as Humpty Dumpty, who can never be put together again.

Distressing as that is to Labor supporters, it comes as no surprise because Labor people know that for at least two years News Limited has been hell-bent on destroying PM Gillard and her Government, and now it seems Fairfax has joined it.

What is most distressing to Labor supporters though is that some Labor politicians have joined in the anti-Gillard chorus. I don’t mean Graham Richardson – he long ago sold his soul to Rupert Murdoch. I do mean, for example, Alannah MacTiernan, an accomplished past Labor politician who is now the well-regarded Mayor of the City of Vincent in WA. Known for her strong views, she opined after the WA election that Labor could not win federally with Julia Gillard as PM, and urged her to step down. She stopped short of suggesting who might take her place. Current NT Labor MLA, Kon Vatskalis, soon joined her.

Others in Labor ranks have hinted similarly, and many opinionistas have strongly asserted the same. Most avoid suggesting who should replace her and how this should come about. Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, and even Simon Crean (the Napthine option) have been named. I do wonder what MacTiernan thought she might accomplish with her suggestion. She has certainly accomplished plenty of press coverage, all the more so I suppose because she is Labor, and many Labor politicians have been confronted by journalists with her statement and asked to respond. She had caused much discomfort in Labor circles, made all the more so because her advice lacks a credible mechanism for bringing about the PM’s resignation and installing a replacement. In a word, her unnecessary intervention is having a negative effect on her own party, and increasing the likelihood of a defeat in September. She, and other Labor figures that utter such unhelpful comments, are a menace even more threatening than the usual media suspects.

Let’s for a moment look at the alternatives to Julia Gillard who has shown herself to be across all portfolios, who has managed a minority government better than anyone thought possible, has a vast legislative agenda and has already had over 460 pieces of legislation passed against trenchant, and at times vitriolic opposition. Is anyone suggesting that Bill Shorten, who has done well in his portfolio, especially in addressing disability, is capable of addressing the full gamut of portfolios if he were to become PM? Who of you believe that Greg Combet, who has performed excellently in his climate change portfolio, could do as well across all areas of government? Do any of you really believe that Simon Crean, who was so cruelly ejected from leadership years ago, would risk his hand again?

If it’s not those men who might replace the PM, who is it? It would not be Wayne Swan who has been tarred with the same brush as the PM. And the possibility, let alone the appropriateness of a return to Kevin Rudd, seems to have been all but discarded by Rudd himself and rejected by a plethora of his caucus colleagues who don’t want him, a failed PM, back in that position under any circumstances. There are of course still pro-Rudd agitators in caucus who believe his return would enhance Labor’s electoral fortunes, and perhaps save their own seats, but that belief is based on opinion polls. How any rational politician could base his or her beliefs and take radical actions on such unreliable and evanescent data is beyond my comprehension. In my opinion, the disruption and chaos that a forced return to Rudd would occasion would quickly negate any imagined electoral advantage. In my view, the only way Rudd’s electoral appeal might be usefully harnessed would be for him to agree to unreservedly back PM Gillard publically, get out on the hustings where he is popular, and strongly advocate a return of the Gillard Government to counter the danger posed to this nation by an Abbott government. A reward that would give him the status he craves might be an inducement, as Mark Latham has suggested.

Because nothing is impossible in political circles, we have to work on probabilities. Get real Folks; how high would you realistically rate the possibility of a Gillard resignation in favour of any of the above-named? And more importantly, how high would you rate the probability that any change would result in a better outcome on September 14? Would you put any of your own money on either of those? What odds do you think you would get? Come on.

Yet the more Labor folk waver, the more they behave as if they need to ‘save the furniture’, the more they propel Labor towards the very outcome they fear.

Cringing cowardice will get Labor nowhere, except drive it backwards. What is needed by all who support Labor is what Julia Gillard exhibits every day of her political life: COOL COURAGE.

She puts to abject shame the doubting Thomases, the Rudd agitators, the marginal seat worry-warts, the timid Labor supporters who talk to their mates, hear adverse comments about our PM, give them predictive credence, and wring their hands in anguish. ALL Labor supporters need guts, stamina and resolve. Where it is lacking, recrimination and self-defeat looms.

The latest round of doubt and uncertainty has arisen from the WA State election, won convincingly by the Liberals and Nationals. Variously described by the commentariat as ‘dire’, a ‘landslide’, a ‘rout’, a ‘crushing defeat’, it has been attributed to ‘Federal Labor being on the nose’, ‘toxic’ even ‘lethal’ according to Peter van Onselen. Leigh Sales sees Labor’s electoral woes as a precursor to a ‘wipeout’ in September. Such extravagant words seem to be all that is necessary to ‘spark a new round of leadership speculation’, especially among the opinionistas. The facts are less important to them, but let’s look at those facts objectively.

Labor was defeated convincingly by Colin Barnett and his team, but why? Barnett himself said that the election was fought mainly on State issues. He credited good governance as the major factor. He made little of the suggestion that the result was an anti-Gillard protest; he even said it might have been a mistake to not have her involved in the campaign. He was not about to assign the major factor in his substantial success to any factor other than his government’s work. Do we believe what the winner has said, or the interpretation put upon the result by the antipathetic commentariat?

There has been much made of the swings to the Liberals and Nationals. In some electorates it was very large and Labor’s loss commensurate. But the State swings show a different picture. The State wide swing to the Liberals was 8.8%, and to the Nationals 1.1%, a total of 9.9%. Now one might reasonably expect that Labor would have borne the brunt of that swing, but that was not so. The swing against Labor was 2.3%, its primary vote falling from 35.9% at the last WA election to 33.6% this time (at the last count), a loss in percentage terms of 6.4% of its total primary vote since the last election that you will remember was close, delivering a ‘hung parliament’. Is that really a ‘rout’? Julie Bishop’s talk of a “12% swing, which would have been 15% had Julia Gillard taken part in the election campaign”, was just hogwash, as is so much of what she utters. It was the Greens who suffered much more, losing about a third of their primary vote: 11.9% to 8.0% (-3.9%), and the conservative Independents still more: 9.0% to 5.3% (-3.7). That is where the LNP garnered most of its swing.

Stephen’s Smith’s concession that Federal Labor had been ‘a drag on State Labor’ was broadcast endlessly, and had an element of truth to it, but if one can take Colin Barnett’s and Labor leader Mark McGowan’s assessment as valid, the ‘drag’ was small. They ought to be in a well-informed position. But to the commentariat the ‘drag’ was massive and predictive of electoral annihilation for Labor in September.

The effect on Federal Labor seats in WA is uncertain. Anthony Green has said that the three Federal Labor seats would likely be held, even in Perth, Stephen’s Smith’s seat, about which doubt has been expressed. Green said that based on ”state figures it [Perth] would be held by Labor…The state figures within Perth are Liberal 44.7%, Labor 42.2%, Green 10.1%, Christian Democrat 2.6%, Family First 0.3%, Socialist 0.2%.”

The most disappointing aspect of these last few days though has been the reaction of members of the Labor caucus, some of whom seem to suffer from chronic depressive illness with an overlay of obsessive behaviour, and others whose melancholy is given expression through agitation for a change to Kevin Rudd, white-anting of the PM, and the back-grounding of ever-eager journalists ready to make a meal of any tidbit that comes their way. These are Labor’s, and Julia Gillard’s, most dangerous enemies.

In my view, their reaction, and that of journalists hungry for sensational headlines, has been way over the top. What did they expect out of the WA election? They must have known that a well regarded first term government in a State that is prospering was not going to be kicked out. They must have expected loss of seats. How many would they have accepted as reasonable? It looks as if around nine seats will be lost. Would one or two, or perhaps three or four have been OK? What did they expect? What would have silenced the malcontents? Do we know? Do they know? Would any loss at all be enough to set the hares running?

Then came today’s Newspoll. Long before it appeared, the commentariat was out there pumping it up as being decisive in determining Julia Gillard’s future. They were salivating at the prospect of delivering a double whammy – the WA result followed within forty-eight hours with another disastrous poll, with Labor’s primary vote sinking even lower and PM Gillard’s popularity falling, as well as her PPM rating. They hoped that this would stir the Rudd agitators to action and whip up even more intense leadership speculation. They were hoping for more self-flagellation from the caucus malcontents, and were ready with tongues hanging out for another round of predicting Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministerial demise. Would she even see out the next fortnight of parliamentary sittings?

No rational person would have expected a vast change in a poll of voting intention from the last Newspoll or the earlier Nielsen poll, especially after all the mud the media has hurled at PM Gillard since then. Yet the commentariat was out there whipping up the ‘Gillard is doomed if the polls don’t improve’ scenario, in anticipation of just that result. The piranhas, thirsty for blood, for tearing every skerrick of flesh from the PM, circled in anticipation of a kill.

But surprisingly the Newspoll came in at a TPP of 52/48 for the Coalition, somewhat of an improvement from the 55/45 figures last time. And Julia Gillard has jumped above Tony Abbott in the PPM stakes: 42/38. Of course there was a morsel for the opinionistas to play with – the statistic that with Kevin Rudd as leader Labor’s primary vote would jump to an improbable 47% and the TPP to 56/44 in favour of Labor. It will be fascinating to see how they play with those statistics, but anyone who believes those figures would be even remotely approached at an election is delusional and ought to be on medication. Yet that is what the commentariat would have us believe, and what the Rudd agitators dream about.

To return to the theme of this piece, what ALL Labor politicians need, particularly the caucus malcontents, what ALL Labor supporters need, is COOL COURAGE in place of the cringing cowardice too many exhibit. They need to emulate our gutsy PM. They need to ignore the ups and downs of meaningless opinion polls, even when they move in Labor’s favour, and get behind her, get behind Labor, strain every fibre of their being to ensure that Tony Abbott never becomes PM of this country.

To return to our Humpty Dumpty Nursery Rhyme, to my mind the most plausible explanation of its origin is the story of the siege of Colchester.

As the story goes, according to Jennifer Wright, writing on Yahoo voices: ”during the English civil war, which took place from 1642 to 1649, there was a battle referred to as the Siege of Colchester, which was a walled city guarded heavily by the Royalists. Parliamentarians were the enemy and known as Roundheads because of their close cropped hair cuts. Inside the city walls stood a castle and a few churches. One church in particular, St. Mary's, stood right beside the wall.

“Humpty Dumpty was believed to be a large cannon that was placed on the wall next to the church…

“Story has it that the walls of the fortified city were shot at for 11 weeks before finally falling. The wall beneath Humpty Dumpty was destroyed and the cannon fell to the ground. Therefore "All the king's horses and all the king's men" tried to put Humpty back together again by attempting to place the cannon onto another part of the wall. Unfortunately Humpty Dumpty was too heavy and could not be replaced. This siege ended with Colchester being taken by the Parliamentarians.”

Here, it is the Coalition parliamentarians, reinforced by a compliant media, that has been shooting incessantly at the Labor fortifications and the Labor leader. They repeatedly proclaimed that the Labor cannon, which had been vigorously returning fire, was falling down, or about to have a great fall. The fall of the leader, who was firing the cannon to great effect, was predicted time and again, but she wouldn’t fall, or as the chief Roundhead said: "She won’t lie down and die."

Meanwhile many, but not all of the king’s men were supporting her and her cannon. Some were timid, afraid of defeat. They detracted from her cannon firing; they touted for another king. They are still to realize that instead of distracting, if all the king’s men secured Humpty Dumpty on the embattlements, the king could fire cannon balls uninterruptedly at the enemy, and win the war.

But that requires discarding their cringing cowardice, and in its place exhibiting cool courage, just like their king. The king’s men owe it to her and her many admiring supporters. Are they up to it?

What do you think?

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The curse of the opinionistas

Reflect on how often you have heard a Fourth Estate political commentator argue: “Because of this set of facts, I am of the opinion that so and so is true”? Seldom. How often have you heard one of them say: “My opinion is based on the following propositions…”? Practically never. How often have you heard or read: “If you put together these facts, it is logical to conclude that…and here is why”? Never.

So what do they say? “He/she showed poor judgement” (no supporting evidence advanced). “That was an appalling mistake” (no facts or reasons for that view provided). “That will play out badly with the electorate” (why this is predicted is not stated). We see this time and again.

This piece asserts that it is the substitution of unsupported opinion, often arising from a partisan mindset, in place of evidence and reasoning, that is the genesis of most of the media ‘bias’, about which there is so much contemporary angst.

Let’s examine a recent case in point. Here is what Niki Savva said in her discussion with Sky News Political Editor David Speers on 25 February in an Agenda session: Are we too focused on polls? Referring to leadership speculation, Savva insisted that PM Gillard: ”brings it on herself” because: ”she performs badly, not just once, but repeatedly.” And: ”She has shown continuously that she has bad judgement…it’s a case of her own missteps. She calls the election for September 14 and then within a matter of days…she announces the departure of two senior cabinet ministers…”

Read that again, or better still, play the YouTube video of the Agenda discussion.

Reflect on her words, and if you watch the video, take a look at Savva’s body language.

What are the relevant facts? There are two: PM Gillard announced a September 14 election and two days later announced the resignation of Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon. Indisputable facts. The rest of what Savva says is simply opinion – her opinion. She offers no reasoning. She simply states, with her usual self-confidence, that: ”she [Gillard] performs badly, not just once but repeatedly”, and that she has “bad judgement” and “missteps”. In the next breath she says: “She [Gillard] calls the election for September 14 and then within a matter of days…she announces the departure of two senior cabinet ministers…”, as if that is sufficient reason for her to condemn the PM vigorously. Savva is of the opinion that announcing the election and then the resignations is ‘bad judgement’, a ‘misstep’. Who says so, apart from Savva? No doubt other anti-Gillard journalists, such as Judith Sloan, who agreed recently on The Drum.

But not one journalist that I have heard or read has argued why these actions constituted ‘bad judgement’ or a ‘misstep’. On what basis were they so? What precedents suggest this is so? We are supposed to accept this journalistic ‘wisdom’ as if it were gospel, without the need for facts, evidence, argument, or reasoning to support it. This is what we the public are confronted with day after day – opinion masquerading as informed reasoning, well thought through conclusions, fact based logic. It is a monumental con. It’s time we cried out in protest.

But remember that Niki Savva and her ilk are intelligent. They are certainly not stupid. So, if she eschews the verifiable facts that you and I can access, or interprets them in her own idiosyncratic way, what generates her behaviour? It can’t be nothing at all. It must be another set of facts.

In my opinion, judging from her behavior time and again on Insiders and other TV programs, what seems to motivate her, what appears to condition her behavior, is a desire to see PM Gillard gone and Tony Abbott installed in her place. Her oral language portrays a loathing of Julia Gillard, as does her body language. That ‘fact’ seems to me to be what energizes her. What generates her behavior appears to me to arise from her values and attitudes towards PM Gillard and Labor, her apparent disdain. What do you think?

The question for us then is how congruent are her values and attitudes with ours, and therefore how acceptable are her opinions to us.

Savva’s attitudes and values were exposed as she argued with Kerry-Anne Walsh, the other panelist on David Spears’ Agenda. Presumably Walsh was included because she had a strong opinion about the way the media uses opinion polls to create news stories and influence the politics. If this was so, Spears got his money’s worth of conflict and argument. Walsh suggested that the purpose of polling was to generate stories, particularly surrounding the Labor leadership, for the benefit of those who own the polling organizations. She went on to accuse the media of using polls to deliberately manipulate the politics. As soon as she did, she was set upon by an indignant Savva and a self-righteous Spears, both of whom denied Walsh’s accusations vigorously. They protested that the media was only following ‘the story’, one that had its origins in the anonymous leaks, corridor whispers, and back-grounding from Labor politicians. They didn’t make this up, insisted Savva and Spears; they were obliged to follow ‘the story’.

When you view the discussion, see if you can discern Savva’s attitude to Julia Gillard. It looked to me that she was very hostile, critical, and even emotional as she expressed her contempt for our PM. Savva’s values seem not to coincide at all with those of the PM. Savva’s opinions are going to be antagonistic to the PM, no matter what the issue. What then are her opinions worth in the context of a balanced discussion? There is no chance of her making a genuine concession, no chance of her giving the PM credit for anything at all. She acts like a court prosecutor, always seeking to bring out the worst and conceal everything other than that.

Savva is but one of many whose opinions are noticeably warped by their attitudes, values and political allegiances. Peter Reith, a frequent panelist on The Drum, Q&A and other TV programs, is another. Have you ever heard him say anything complimentary about our PM or anything Labor has done or proposes to do? He is unremittingly and sarcastically critical, negative and disparaging. Yet, like Savva, he is included, supposedly to provide balance. What are he and Savva supposed to be balancing? How many avid left-leaning, Government-supporting, Gillard-admiring panelists are there that need the counterbalance of a Savva or a Reith? I can’t think of any. Can you? Even Kerry-Anne Walsh, who argued so strongly with Savva and Spears on Agenda, was not mounting a strident pro-Gillard agenda; she was simply criticizing the media for its preoccupation with polls, leadership and for manipulating the politics. The only supportive comment Walsh made was that she felt that our PM had been unfairly dealt with by the media, not a highly disputable assertion. And on other programs, Walsh has certainly not come across as a Gillard fancier.

Apart from Savva and Reith, there seems to be a plethora of anti-Gillard, anti-Labor opinionistas that can be drawn upon. Among the many are the odious Piers Akerman, rabidly anti-Gillard Andrew Bolt, turncoat Graham Richardson, the oleaginous Graeme Morris, smarmy Gerard Henderson, the egotistical Joe Hildebrand, past-Liberal politician Ross Cameron, Liberal advocate Judith Sloan, the hard right John Roskam, smart Aleck Tim Wilson, the too-clever-by-half Tom Switzer (the IPA has an abundant supply of panelists that the ABC seems compelled to engage). News Limited has an almost inexhaustible stock of anti-Labor journalists that can serve on panels to inject their learned, but invariably biased opinions: the pontifical Paul Kelly, the let’s-get-rid-of-Gillard Dennis Shanahan, fence-sitter Peter van Onselen, the consistently antagonistic Irme Salusinszky and Henry Ergas. There are many others.

Shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley are extreme anti-Gillard opinionistas. How many moderate ones are there? Jon Faine on ABC 774 Radio is one. I know of no left-leaning shock jocks. Do you?

As one would expect, panelists drawn from political parties are extreme in their views. George Brandis, Eric Abetz, Barnaby Joyce, Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella are consistently acerbic and unremittingly negative to Labor, more than matching Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. This is no surprise, but that doesn’t stop journalists from engaging them on panels and at doorstops to ‘give balance to their programs’. They provide the conflict and entertainment the media craves.

Are there any journalists out there that can and do give a balanced opinion, an opinion that is ready to give credit to, as well as criticize any of the parties? Some of those, who in my opinion fit that specification, are Mike Seccombe, Dennis Atkins, Laura Tingle, David Marr, Ross Gittins, Peter Martin, George Megalogenis, Andrew Probyn; and Steve Cannane, Tim Palmer and Julia Baird of The Drum. None give the impression of being ‘lefties’.

What this piece is arguing is that the electorate is bombarded day after day with opinion from the opinionistas that derives far less from facts and reasoning than from the political orientation, the political preferences, and the attitudes and values of the opinionistas. In other words, it is what political outcome they desire that determines their utterances and writings, not the hard, cold facts, not a logically reasoned conclusion derived from them. In short, their opinions are worthless. All they portray is what they want, what they desperately wish and hope for. Not what logically follows from verifiable facts. We are being sold a pup, by con merchants, deliberately and shamelessly. And we’re fed up with being treated like idiots.

‘Media bias’ has attracted a lot of attention recently in the Fifth Estate. Arguments have arisen about whether it is real or imagined. Ben Eltham wrote about it recently in New Matilda: The Truth About Media Bias . Studies have attempted to define bias and document it. Some find that partisan bias is minimal or non-existent; others suggest bias one way or the other. This piece takes a different tack. It argues that the opinion of opinionistas is worthless, in fact dangerous, when their opinion is not based on facts and logical reasoning, instead being predominately a product of their political orientation, attitudes and values, the more so when their political orientation is strongly partisan. Commenting on the Eltham article, Ross C said pointedly: ”We all should remember that a journalist’s role is to dispassionately document what happens, not cause stuff to happen. Overstepping that mark consistently can destroy credibility, and the transition from journalist to commentator is hard to reverse.” Indeed!

That there are many partisan opinionistas seems undeniable; we see, hear, and read them every day. What might be debatable is the relative proportion of right-leaning and left leaning opinionistas, and how heavily they lean when they do. My impression is that there are many more right-leaning, and that they lean strongly that way. What do you think?

The question that begs an answer, at least for me, is why the right-leaning seem to predominate on current affairs programs on radio and TV and in print. Why are their opinions, which to me are worthless because they lack underpinning evidence and reasoning, solicited so frequently?

A cogent reason would be that some news outlets are actively seeking to bring down the Gillard Government and replace it with an Abbott one. News Limited is one; it looks as if Fairfax has joined them. In ‘breaking news’ in a postscript to an article: Among The True Believers on The Pub Bushfire Bill recounted a discussion he had had with journalists at the recent Community Cabinet meeting: "Tony Abbott has lunch at News Ltd HQ every week." Incredulous, I asked the person to repeat it. "Every week, in private, to discuss the latest ‘Get Gillard’ strategies." BB went on to comment: ”No wonder there’s such a seamless segue between what News writes and what Abbott parrots. He’s dealing with the enemy. They’re writing the script for him.” If this is so, is it any wonder that so many pro-Coalition opinionistas are on the air and in print, hour after hour, day after day, week after week offering their partisan opinions sans evidence, sans logic? It is part of a combined Coalition/News Limited strategy to bring Labor down. As BB reminds us: When they really ARE out to get you, it’s NOT paranoia.

Even leaving aside the conspiracy to which BB alludes, its suits media outlets to use these opinionistas because they generate indignation, now media stock in trade, as NormanK pointed out in a comment on the last piece: ”A few years ago I wrote a fairly lengthy comment here about Mr Abbott's campaign to convince the populace that they had a 'right to be angry'. Angry about a flood levy, angry about a supposed broken promise, angry at renegade independent members who went against the prevailing mood of their electorates, angry about just about everything that stopped their lives from reaching the nirvana that they so obviously deserve. A different theme has emerged in the way in which the popular media approaches just about every story that it covers. Perhaps the tactic has existed for many years but I'm only noticing it now. The new emotion for the decade is 'indignation'. It started manifesting itself in my consciousness when the 'sporting scandal' broke. Remember that 'darkest day' in Australian sport?” NormanK concluded: ”Next time you have the misfortune to be consuming the tabloid media (I include 7.30 & Lateline in this category) ask yourself whether or not indignation is not the primary emotion that the slant of the story is attempting to engender.”

He is right. Opinionistas generate indignation. Indignation about the ‘cost of living’, electricity prices, the cost of housing. It must be someone’s fault. Opinionistas invite people to be indignant about PM Gillard, her ‘poor judgements’, her ‘missteps’, her ‘broken promises’, the carbon tax, the minerals tax, many of her policies (asylum policy, gay marriage), her manner of speech (condescending, schoolmarmish), her demeanour, her appearance, her marital status, her willingness to take the fight up to a male opponent, her audacity negotiating and managing a minority government, ‘against the wishes of the electorate’; the list of ‘indignation triggers’ goes on and on.

In my view, opinionistas are a curse on our political system. Predominantly, they offer opinions based on partisan positions rather than on facts and well-reasoned arguments. Moreover, their opinions deliberately evoke indignation, which incites anger among the electorate and opposition to those in power. This fits nicely into the anti-Government, anti-Gillard narrative that most of the Fourth Estate promotes day after day.

In my view, the whole tenor of political debate is warped, is cursed by opinionistas. What a difference it would make if those who proffer an opinion did so using verifiable evidence and logical reasoning, and steered clear of partisan bias?

‘Pie in the sky’, I hear you murmuring!

What do you think?

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Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, stop killing confidence

How many times have you heard commentators lamenting how low consumer and business confidence have become? Time and again. How many times have you seen journalists attempting to analyse why? Very few. How many times have you seen them sheet home any of the lack of confidence among consumers and businessmen to the negative utterances of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey? Practically never.

Indeed, it has been only recently that some journalists have been willing to point the finger at them and the Coalition’s unending talking down of the economy. Peter Martin was one who obliquely did so recently.

Here at The Political Sword we have maintained that the negative talk from the Coalition has had a substantial effect on confidence. Read Abbott and Hockey are endangering Australian business, written last November. Also read Do Australian businessmen really believe Tony Abbott?, written a week later, which is on the same theme.

Was this theme echoed in the MSM? Not until recently. Why? For the same reason the MSM highlighted in screaming front page headlines and grotesque photo-shopped photos the alleged misdemeanors of Peter Slipper and the supposed transgressions taken to court by James Ashby, but buried in its back pages Justice Rares condemnation of this Ashby action as ‘an abuse of process’, one intended to damage Slipper personally and politically, and the Gillard Government too. Much of the MSM deliberately and repeatedly buries or distorts the truth for its own commercial and partisan ideological purposes. It does the same with consumer and business confidence.

There are very few in the MSM, and none in News Limited, who will lay a finger on Abbott or Hockey. We have just a few journalists that will say it the way it is – Peter Martin and Ross Gittins are two at Fairfax, and Bernard Keane at Crikey. Let’s look first at an article by Keane: The strange case of the national delusion on cost of living

Here are some edited excerpts from Keane’s piece: ”Essential Research asked voters to give their impressions of how much prices had changed on a range of basic consumer items over the last two to three years… 70% of voters said they were paying “a lot more” for electricity and gas…that corresponds with reality: according to ABS inflation data, electricity prices have increased by 38 index points since December 2009, or over 16% a year. Gas has gone up by 29 index points, or around 11% a year.

“But what about petrol? That’s gone up by just over 16 index points, or just over 6% a year on average – ahead of CPI, but not in the same league as electricity. Yet 50% of voters say they’re paying a lot more than they were three years ago…That’s bordering on the implausible…On water, perceptions look more plausible: 47% said they were paying “a lot more” for water, and water prices have increased 22 index points or around 9% a year on average.

“After that, though, there’s a growing gulf between perceptions of inflation and reality. 43% of voters say they’re paying “a lot more” for insurance…But insurance across the country has only increased 10 index points, or less than 4% a year – around about CPI.

“36% of voters complain they are paying “a lot more” for fruit and vegetables. Fruit and veg prices have only gone up just over 10 index points since December 2009, or less than 4% a year… 28% said they were paying “a lot more” for food generally, when in fact food and non-alcoholic beverages prices have grown at less than the CPI...

“Health costs have gone up 15 points, or just over 5% a year, but 33% said they were paying “a lot more” for medical expenses… 24% thought they were paying “a lot more” for housing (both mortgages and rent) when housing costs have only increased slightly faster than inflation…

“Education costs have gone up by around 16 points, or about 6% a year, ahead of inflation, but only 24% said they were paying “a lot more”.

“One category stands out as being the basis of what is almost a national delusion. Clothing has fallen in price by 7 index points or around 2% a year each year, since 2009 (kids’ clothing has fallen by more, 11 points). But 21% of voters say they’re paying “a lot more” for clothing…

And there’s another factor that distorts perceptions: partisanship. On average, 10% more Liberal voters say they are paying “a lot more” for products compared to Labor voters.

“Is that because Labor voters have a positively-skewed perception of the economy, or because Liberal voters have a negatively-skewed perception? A bit of both, it seems, but more the latter. Both share the delusion about clothing prices…but 77% of Liberal voters more realistically say they’re paying a lot more for electricity, compared to 67% of Labor voters…

“Other categories, though, suggest Liberal voters see price rises everywhere even when they don’t exist. 58% said they were paying “a lot more” for petrol, compared to 41% of Labor voters. 42% said they were paying a lot more for fruit and veg compared to 28% of Labor voters. Insurance was 50% to 38%. Food, 32% to 23%. Medical, 42% to 25%...

“…A substantial proportion of voters will always be convinced inflation is much worse than it is, and in fact filter their perceptions of inflation through partisan bias....”
(my emphasis)

So here is the first piece of evidence – Coalition voters are more pessimistic about price rises than Labor voters. Why? Could it be because they have taken as gospel the negative talk that Abbott and Hockey feed to the electorate every day?

Recently, consumer confidence has been analysed to ascertain from whence the lack of confidence arises. In Coalition voters underpin surge in confidence, Peter Martin writes:

”Supporters of the Coalition are suddenly confident about the economy, moving clearly into positive territory for the first time in two years. The latest Westpac-Melbourne Institute consumer confidence survey shows optimists among Coalition voters outweigh the number of pessimists by five percentage points, a reverse of the recent pattern in which Coalition voters have been strongly negative. Labor voters remain extremely positive, with optimists outweighing pessimists by more than 20 points.

“The lift among Coalition voters has been enough to hoist the overall consumer confidence index from around 100 points to 108 on a scale where 100 means the number of pessimists balance the number of optimists.

“Westpac senior economist Matthew Hassan said the change was primarily the result of the carbon tax. Ahead of its introduction in the middle of last year it pushed the confidence of Coalition voters (but not Labor voters) into a downward spiral. ''There was the point when there was a whole series of overlapping concerns around tax changes - the carbon tax, the mining tax, the global situation was getting worse and in Queensland things looked dire. The incoming government spoke about Queensland being the Spain of Australia. At the same time low- and middle-income households likely to vote Labor were being showered with carbon tax compensation, exacerbating the wedge. In all the time we've been doing this we've never seen as big a deviation. In terms of confidence, we had a divided nation. It was off the charts.''

“Mr Hassan said the improved consumer figures represented a return to normality. The carbon tax had not been as bad as expected, the share market had climbed and interest rates had fallen.

“HSBC Australia chief economist Paul Bloxham hailed the surge in sentiment as a sign interest rate cuts were having their desired effect. ''This result is consistent with what we've had in mind, which is that the soft patch in the Australian economy may be behind us,'' he said.

“Asked whether now was a good time to buy a major household item, an extraordinary 59 per cent of Australians surveyed said yes. Only 16 per cent said no.

“One-quarter of those surveyed expected their personal financial situation to improve in the year ahead. Only one in five expected it to get worse.”

Here is another piece of evidence that it is Coalition voters who are depressing confidence ratings. The thesis of this piece is that this is because they have swallowed whole the Abbott/Hockey doom and gloom narrative.

The weekly Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence Rating of 12 February shows “Consumer Confidence rising to 121.4pts (up 2.9 pts since February 2/3, 2013) after the RBA left Australian interest rates unchanged at a record low of 3%. Consumer Confidence is now 5.7pts higher than at the same time a year ago, February 11/12, 2012 – 15.7. The rise in Consumer Confidence has been driven by an increase in confidence about buying major household items and increasing confidence about personal finances over both the last and the next 12 months.

“Now a much larger majority of 60% (up 6%) of Australians say now is a ‘good time to buy’ major household items compared to just 16% (unchanged) that say now is a ‘bad time to buy’.

“Also, now 34% (up 6%) of Australians believe they are ‘better off” financially than this time last year (the highest since September 22/23, 2012) compared to 27% (down 2%) that say they are ‘worse off’.

“Australians are also more positive about their personal finances over the next 12 months with 43% (up 2%) saying they expect their family to be ‘better off’ financially while 14% (down 1%) expect to be ‘worse off’ financially.

“Now 39% (up 2%) of Australians expect ‘good times’ for the Australian economy over the next five years compared to 18% (up 2%) that expect Australia to have ‘bad times’

“However 29% (up 4%) of Australians expect ‘bad times’ economically over the next twelve months compared to 35% (up 2%) of Australians that expect ‘good times.”

So it seems that consumer confidence is on the rise. Which begs the question, why has it been so low for so long?

Clearly, there are many factors. The residual effect of the GFC lingered long. People are still more inclined to save; less inclined to make extravagant purchases, something retailers testify; more prudent about buying an expensive house, as estate agents tell us, and banks are less inclined to lend for this purpose. This prudence is not without merit as many were spending wildly beyond their means, encouraged by retailers such as Harvey Norman, maxing out their credit cards, and entering into maxi-mortgages to buy their four bedroom, three bathroom McMansions, complete with al fresco dining areas, and home entertainment theatres.

Then there was the Eurozone financial crisis with the dire threat of default on loans by the governments of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and even Italy, a threat that worried many voters, one that eroded their confidence. Politicians here, to wit Campbell Newman, referred to Australia as ‘another Spain’, and even Joe Hockey hinted that Australian too was a sovereign risk. Add to that the ‘financial cliff’ saga in the US with the Republicans blocking the Democrats at every turn, together with the poor economic data coming from there, and you have an ugly picture that would depress anyone already feeling insecure.

But while there were these global factors that undoubtedly influenced the thinking and feeling of the people, there was a persistent local factor: the continual daily talking down of the Australian economy and the Gillard Government’s capacity to manage it by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.

While commentators largely blame overseas factors for the depressed confidence of consumers and businessmen alike, they show almost no willingness to recognize the elephant in the room – the negative, continually depressing talk of Abbott and Hockey, the demeaning of the Australian economy, day after day. What evidence is there for this assertion? Just look at the figures quoted above. It has been largely Coalition voters, those who swallow the Abbott/Hockey propaganda without question, who have pulled down consumer confidence, and I suggest also the confidence of businessmen, especially those involved in retail.

Their talk of the disaster that the carbon tax would bring about affected people’s confidence, and I suggest that the fact that the dire predictions of Abbott and Hockey, and of course Barnaby Joyce and his ‘$100 lamb roasts’, have come to naught, has ameliorated their anxiety and boosted their confidence. There seems to be an uncomplicated ‘cause – effect’ relationship between carbon tax doom and gloom and diminished consumer confidence, and between the dissapation of that gloom and improving confidence. We know that there is more to it than that, but the relationship seems germane.

In Why voters believe the economy is in trouble, Ross Gittins offers another reason for low confidence:

“With all the silly talk about 'the cautious consumer' and with punters blissfully unaware that retailing accounts for only about a third of consumer spending, all the highly publicized complaints of the Gerry Harveys helped convince the public not that the retailers have their own troubles, but that the economy must be going down the tube.

“Then there's the contribution of the unending fuss about ‘debt and deficit’, in which the government has been completely outfoxed by the Liberals. Although every economically literate person knows Australia doesn't have a significant level of public debt, the opposition has had great success exploiting the public's ignorance of public finance and of just how big the economy is ($1.5 trillion a year) by quoting seemingly mind-boggling levels of gross public debt.

“With much of this argy bargy being reported by political rather than economic journalists - how many times have you heard talk of 'the economy's deficit'? – it is hardly surprising the public has acquired an exaggerated impression of the economic significance of the budget deficit. Ironically, the budget deficit is a case where a cyclical (temporary) problem has been taken to be a structural (long-lasting) one.”

And who were responsible for all the spurious ‘debt and deficit’ talk – all this scary chatter about this nation being over its head in debt and borrowing a million dollars a day to service it? Abbott, Hockey, and bringing up the rear, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann.

And who in the media pointed out that the nation’s debt was miniscule, indeed much lower proportionately that the homebuyer taking out an average mortgage. It was left to Ross Gittins and Peter Martin. Even the AFR, that ought to have been exposing this, defaulted. With Michael Stutchbury at the helm there, I suppose we ought not to be surprised!

This piece asserts that much of the poor consumer confidence and low business confidence has been the direct result of Abbott, Hockey and the Coalition talking down the economy, mendaciously painting a dismal picture of the state of our nation, shamefully eroding confidence and damaging the economy for its own political ends, aided and abetted by a largely compliant media.

That other factors, some global, are operating on confidence is obvious, but ignoring the massive elephant trumpeting in the room where the people live – the Abbott/Hockey/Coalition elephant – is to miss what I believe is a major factor: the negativity, the doom, the gloom, the cynicism, the dismay, the distrust and the pessimism that these cynical, self-serving, ruthless politicians propagate every day, every week, every month.

And most of the media remains shamefully mute.

Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, stop killing confidence.

What do you think?

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Don’t mention the polls

This is an open letter to all Federal Labor parliamentarians.

Of all people, you must know that polls of voting intention this far from the scheduled election date of September 14 are not predictive of the election outcome. Even the pollsters themselves tell us that. They agree that trends over time are the only useful pointers.

Yet every time a poll comes out, you are out there, whether it's good or bad, responding to the inevitable questions of journalists, whom you know very well are more interested in leadership speculation, with all the conflict and entertainment that engenders, than the policy issues that matter to the people. Why do you do it? You know that what you say, whether positive, negative, or neutral, will be echoed on countless TV, radio, and current affairs programs, and in the print and online media, thereby escalating the drama that the media deliberately sets out to create, while blocking out the critically important messages you need to transmit. Why do you do it?

Why can’t you take Basil Fawlty’s line?


The media is out there deliberately baiting you, yet so many of you take the bait – hook, line and sinker – time and again.

When you do, you add to the uncertainty that the media is deliberately creating, thereby undermining your leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, your own Party, and your chances of electoral success. Surely, you must know that!

What is even more destructive, SOME OF YOU seem to be intentionally white-anting PM Gillard’s authority, and the outstanding work she is doing under difficult circumstances, with your so-called ‘back-grounding’ of journalists, who, like the insatiable piranhas they are, devour every morsel you offer, piranhas who would devour the entire Labor Party if they could.

Labor supporters despair when they hear of this subversive behavior. Unless journalists are entirely making this up, there are SOME OF YOU, who knows how many, sabotaging your leader and the Party. That is reprehensible and unforgivable. In war, people like you are taken out and shot.

We know that some of you are Rudd supporters, and thereby Gillard antagonists, but we don’t get to know the names of those of you who are actively back-grounding journalists. If Labor supporters did know your names, you would be deluged with angry emails insisting that you desist. Paul Howes had some words to describe your despicable behaviour – ‘gutless’ was one of them.

While no one would deny you the right to support whom you prefer, that is a world away from sabotaging the leader, elected just twelve months ago by a two to one majority, the one who is in the process of preparing for an election where Labor is seeking another term, where you as a Labor parliamentarian would enjoy another period in power.

We know that some of you are fiercely loyal to Julia Gillard, and that you too despair of the corrosive behavior of your disloyal colleagues. We imagine you have spoken to those whom you know are disloyal, but it seems to no avail. They continue with what seems to be a deluded belief that returning Kevin Rudd to Prime Ministership would somehow reverse the current polls and lead the Party to a resounding victory, even after he has repeatedly denied that that is his intent. Presumably, that belief is predicated on the polls that ask people what Party they would vote for under Gillard and Rudd leadership, which always come out in favour of Rudd. Surely, these malcontents can’t be stupid enough to base their strategy on such unreliable polls, or on private polling and focus groups, the opinions of which could change in a flash, especially with News Limited on the case, leaving these hopefuls high and dry.

Please try to talk some sense into the heads of these speculative malcontents, insist they get behind their leader, and fight the awful prospect of an Abbott government, tooth and nail. There is the enemy.

Let them know that loyal Labor supporters are furious with their subversive, treacherous behavior, and demand they desist immediately.

There is a Newspoll out this coming week. If it is even mildly bad for Labor, you know the vicious cycle of leadership speculation will start all over again. You must stop the sabotage and the disruption it evokes, which boosts Tony Abbott in his fevered quest for power, while eroding support for your leader, Julia Gillard.

And even if the poll is more favourable to Labor than the last, don’t be sucked into comment – you know it will be perverted to feed the frenzied piranhas thrashing about in their media puddle.


If a piranha rings to bite you for leadership information, hang up. If a piranha bites you at a doorstop, do an Abbott: just walk away.

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When will Tony Abbott fill the gaping void in his latest slogan: Hope. Reward. Opportunity?

The image of would-be Prime Minister Abbott as a hollow man, a lightweight on policy, and an economic dilettante would not have been diminished, let alone erased by his address in Canberra to the National Press Club of Australia: HOPE. REWARD. OPPORTUNITY. at the end of January. Here’s why.

‘Hope’, ‘reward’ and ‘opportunity’ are fine sounding words, embracing as they do laudable concepts, worthy aspirations that most citizens would applaud.

Regrettably, Abbott’s use of these admirable goals perpetuates his superficial three-word slogan approach to politics. He and his minders know that such short snappy cascades will be memorable, even if policy-poor. As were his other three word slogans: ‘Stop the Taxes’, ‘Repay the Debt’ and ‘Stop the Boats’. They stuck in people’s mind. So we ought not to be surprised at a reprise of such Coalition sloganeering.

Let’s see then if there is any substantive underpinning of these aspirations as we read through the rest of his address. Not all of it can be reproduced below, as that would make the piece too long, but the full text is available via a link at the end. There you can assess the whole address yourself.

It should be acknowledged at the outset that this address was presented as Abbott’s and the Coalition’s view of the past, and their vision of the future under a Coalition government. So it would be unrealistic to expect it to be redolent with detail. Nevertheless it is not unreasonable to expect some hint of how the vision would become reality and how much it would cost. Readers will be disappointed at their almost complete absence.

Abbott’s speech is in italics. My comments/questions are in bold.

”Here in Canberra, we must never forget that our task is to serve the Australian people. The political battles we have to fight are but a means to that end.

“Almost every day for the past two years, my colleagues and I have been listening to you, the Australian people.

“You’ve told us about your lives, your families and your hopes for the future.

“Since the last election, I’ve visited 215 businesses, I’ve held 43 community forums, and I’ve hosted 33 local morning teas.

“My senior colleagues have done many more.

“It’s clear to us what you, our fellow Australians, want:
- you want less pressure on your cost of living;
- you want more job security;
- you want our borders under control;
- you want stability and certainty returned to decision-making; and
- you want leaders you can trust.”

It would be hard to quibble with the first two 'wants' – they are motherhood statements. The last three will resonate with some, but they imply that our borders are not under control, that decision making now lacks certainty, and that trust in leaders is lacking – the first batch of Abbott’s barbs. He subtly introduces into his assessment of what the people want a condemnation of the present Government. So much for his stated intention to replace negativity with the positive Mr Abbott! He either can’t help himself, or his words are deliberate.

Let’s now take a look at the Abbott plans:

“Our plans for a better Australia are our response to you. The carbon tax will be gone – so power prices will fall.”

A promise easy to make, but problematic to implement. His theoretical assertion about falling prices will likely never eventuate. And of course he makes no mention of the negative effects on carbon pollution of removing the tax. Nor is there any mention of the removal of compensation.

”The mining tax will be gone – so investment and jobs will increase.”

Again, a confident pledge that may never come about, and another assertion not founded on fact. In fact, since the mining tax was introduced investment and jobs have already increased – why will they now increase when it is stopped? No rationale is offered.

”The boats will be stopped – because what’s been done before, can be done again”

Here again the assumption, one that the Coalition has made for ages, is that reintroduction of the Howard three-headed routine will have the same effect as it is believed it did a decade ago. No evidence is offered; we are expected simply to swallow this because of its superficial plausibility.

”And the budget will be back in the black – so government has the resources to deliver the services that are really needed.”

There it is: a confident assurance, without caveat, without qualification, without an explanation of how they will deliver their surpluses. Joe Hockey insists there will be a surplus in his first budget.

”Our vision for Australia is about you.

“Our ambition is for more empowered, more capable citizens – rather than bigger, more interfering government.

“This is the golden thread that runs through all our policy commitments.”

These are bland, motherhood statements that anyone could make. They are devoid of buttressing facts and reasoning. They are nothing more than hollow statements, empty aspirations. There is no hint of how a Coalition government might empower citizens.

”Lower taxes, less red tape, more opportunities for work and more responsive schools and hospitals reflect our trust in the Australian people to know what’s right for them.”

Make of that what you can, but don’t ask how taxes are to be lowered when all we have heard from Abbott is increased taxes, or how red tape will be lessened, or how more opportunities for work or more responsive schools and hospitals are to be had. We will have to wait patiently for that detail!

Government is important – my colleagues and I are in the parliament because it matters and because we care about our country – but, in a democracy, the people must come first.

“My colleagues and I want to reach out to all the decent people of our country to reassure you that government can have your best interests at heart – rather than just its own survival.

· We respect the commitment that working people bring to each job.
· We know Australian families’ struggle just to make ends meet.
· We honour the contribution that older people have made to our country’s strengths.
· We admire the way that small business people will mortgage a home to serve customers and employ staff.
· We understand that farmers are the original conservationists.
· And we are proud of the migrants who come here, from the four corners of the earth, not to change our way of life but to share it.

Look at the assumptions underlying these persuasive statements:

… best interests at heart – rather than just its own survival, implies that ‘survival’ is the only aim of the Gillard Government, and that it does not have the best interests of the people at heart.

“Families struggle just to make ends meet”.

Do all families? Why not “some families…”

As Australians, each of you has a right to elected leaders who are straight with you and who don’t waste your money.

Of course, but the implication is that the Gillard Government is not ‘straight’ and wastes your money. So he gives some well worn examples:

”Before the last election, the government promised that it would deliver a budget surplus but no carbon tax. In fact, it’s delivered a carbon tax but no budget surplus.

So my pledge to you is that I won’t say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards because fibbing your way into office is what’s brought our public life into disrepute.

Tony Abbott would never lie to the people, would he?

“Should the Liberal and National parties win the next election, we will restore the hope, reward and opportunity that ought to be every Australian’s birthright.

“It all starts with a strong economy. A more productive and more competitive economy means more prosperity for everyone to share.

“The Coalition understands that it’s the hard work of ordinary people, not government, that generates wealth.

“Government’s job is to make it easier, not harder, for business to be more productive.

“The Coalition understands that every dollar that government spends is a dollar taken from you in taxes today or two dollars taken from our children in a few years’ time when the debt has to be repaid.

“That’s why government has to be as careful with its spending as you are with yours – and why government has to be as keen to boost national income as you are to boost family income."

Here we have a repeat of the initial slogan and more motherhood statements, replete with thinly-disguised barbs. Then as night follows day, we have a set of negatives:

“For this government, though, the solution to every problem is more spending, more taxing and more borrowing – even though you can never cure too much debt and deficit with yet more debt and deficit. As every family knows, it can’t be Christmas forever. Eventually, February comes and the credit card has to be paid off.

“A stronger economy is not an end in itself – but it is the necessary foundation for the better services, stronger borders, cleaner environment and modern infrastructure that everyone wants.

“So Australia’s challenge is to realise our economic potential so that we can all enjoy the benefits that prosperity brings.

“Two budgets ago, the government promised to deliver half a million more jobs within two years.

“It’s achieved less than a third of that with just three months to go.

“Since 2007, GDP per person has grown at only one third of the rate achieved under the Howard government, which now seems like a lost golden age of prosperity.

“Australia’s multi-factor productivity has actually declined by three per cent over the last five years.

“People are saving at levels not seen in 20 years because no one trusts this government to save and few believe its claims that the economy is in good shape.

“In 2004-5, with unemployment at about five per cent, the Howard government delivered a surplus of one and half per cent of GDP despite terms of trade almost 40 per cent lower – yes, lower – than last year when the Gillard government delivered a deficit – a deficit – of three per cent of GDP.

“The Prime Minister was right when she said that “you can’t run this country if you can’t manage its budget”. So when the Treasurer finally admitted that his “come hell or high water” surplus wouldn’t happen, the government branded itself an economic failure."

Having slagged off the Government comprehensively, Abbott now indulges in self-adulation.

“Unlike this government, the Coalition can deliver a stronger economy because we understand that governments have to live within their means. It’s in our DNA – as the record shows.

“The Coalition’s last eleven budgets delivered ten surpluses.

“This year’s deficit will be Labor’s eleventh in a row.

“The Coalition can keep government spending in check because we’re not beholden to the Greens.

“And we can make the economy more productive because we’re not dependent on the unions.

“Let’s be clear. The coming election will be a referendum on the carbon tax. Above all, it will be a referendum on economic management because stronger economic growth is what government has to deliver."

Coalition strategists have these chunks of boilerplate that they drop into Abbott’s addresses ad nauseam. We have heard them all before, endlessly. What follows is Abbott’s preamble to his plan.

“Here at the Press Club 12 months ago, I outlined the Coalition’s plan for a stronger and more prosperous economy, and a safe and secure Australia… positive plans for a stronger economy, stronger communities, stronger borders, a cleaner environment and modern infrastructure.”

Here, would you believe, is ‘the plan’:

"So far, the Coalition has made literally dozens of big policy commitments:
- We’ll abolish the carbon tax – because it’s the quickest way to reduce power prices.
- We’ll abolish the mining tax – because it’s the quickest way to boost investment and jobs.
- And we’ll cut red tape costs by at least $1 billion a year – to give small business a much-needed break.
- By restoring the jobs growth of the Howard government, there’ll be two million more jobs over a decade.
- There’ll be border protection policies that have been proven to stop the boats.
- And there’ll be revitalised work for the dole.
- There’ll be a swift start on Melbourne’s East-West link, on Sydney’s WestConnex and on Brisbane’s Gateway motorway upgrade.
- And the Pacific Highway will finally be duplicated well within this decade.
- We’ll reduce emissions by planting more trees, delivering better soils and using smarter technology rather than a carbon tax that just sends our jobs overseas.
- There’ll be a one-stop-shop for faster environmental approvals.
- There’ll be a fully restored tough cop on the beat, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, to deliver $5 billion a year in productivity improvements.
- There’ll be the same penalties for union officials and company officers who commit the same offence.
- There’ll be schools and hospitals run by community leaders, not by distant bureaucrats, so they’re more responsive to the parents and patients they serve.
- There’ll be a new Colombo Plan that’s a two way street between Australia and our region sending our best and brightest to study in the region and bringing their best here.
- There’ll be a comprehensive review of childcare so it’s more responsive to the 24/7 needs of today’s working families.
- There will be no unexpected changes that are detrimental to people’s superannuation.
- There will be no further reductions in defence spending – that’s already fallen to the lowest level, as a percentage of GDP, since 1938.
- And we will protect spending on medical research where Australia’s talented scientists give us such a comparative advantage.

“These are all commitments that we’ve already made and that you can trust me to keep.”

On and on it goes – lots of grand promises, several using words we heard earlier in the speech, but nowhere any sign of how it will achieve any of them or what it will cost. Look through the list again. See if you can see anything but aspirations. See if you can see any genuine plans, see if you can detect any how, when, where, and at what cost.

“…The government thinks that by announcing September 14 as polling day, it can force the Coalition to announce all our policy detail now. The Coalition will release our costings after the government releases theirs – after the Budget and before polling day. It won’t be easy to find the savings to fund tax cuts without a carbon tax but we won’t shirk the hard decisions, such as being up front with people that the school kids’ bonus will go – because it’s a cash splash with borrowed money that has nothing to do with education. Between now and polling day, we will be constantly developing our policy commitments so that you know exactly what will happen should the government change.

“On broadband, I’ve often said that the Coalition will deliver higher speeds sooner and more affordably than Labor’s nationalised monopoly NBN. We’re committed to super high speed broadband that’s affordable for everyone and built sooner rather than later. But with so many competing priorities, the last thing Australians need is another $50 billion plus in borrowed money to deliver higher speeds – but only in a decade’s time and at about triple the current monthly price. We won’t throw good money after bad but we won’t dismantle what’s been built. Our fibre-to-the-node plan will deliver superfast broadband for a fraction of the price and in a fraction of the time required to deliver fibre to the front door.”

All empty promises and hollow rhetoric, with no detail, no plans, no costings, no outcome measures – just empty words, and a few nasties thrown in to scare the less well off.

Reproducing the whole Abbott speech would take too much space, but if you want to check whether my assertions of hollowness, of empty rhetoric, are accurate, read the rest of the speech here. In my opinion it gets no better – there is just more of the same. If you can stomach reading it, he offers still more negativity and wallows in sickening self-aggrandisement. He ends with a flourish:

We are a great country and a great people let down by a poor government.

“That’s what really has to change – and now the date has been set. I’m ready for the election.”

So is Julia Gillard. She has runs on the board with over 430 pieces of legislation already passed. She is doing, as well as promising, she plans and gets the job done; Abbott engages in hollow talk. And I suspect that this empty rhetoric will continue almost until polling day as Abbott hides, for fear that someone will discern his emptiness, probe his hollowness, and find holes in his costings, as usual.

Take your pick between an achiever who is getting things done, and a negator who knocks everything the Government does, promises wildly, but never reveals how he will deliver.

Compare the two National Press Club of Canberra speeches, given one day apart. Here is Julia Gillard’s address , and the video.

You will note a stark difference between her address and Tony Abbott’s. Her speech is loaded with facts and figures, plans and achievements. His is largely empty rhetoric, light on facts and plans, but redolent with high-sounding promises.

For another stark contrast with the Abbott address, look at what Barack Obama had to say on 13 February in his State of the Union address. Loaded with action plans, and should Congress fail to act, contingency plans to get things done. Action on climate change was a notable example of this.

While it might be argued that our Prime Minister’s address and President Obama’s address were delivered by serving leaders in power, and that it would be unreasonable to expect a would-be leader awaiting the reins of power to match the richness of the facts these leaders presented or the plans they offered and the financial backing they guaranteed, it IS reasonable to ask when the Leader of the Opposition, who will be begging us to elect him leader of the nation on 14 September, will give us more than motherhood statements and hollow talk, when he will reveal his detailed plans for delivering his many aspirations, and when he will account for how, when, where and at what cost he will deliver them.

He can’t keep fobbing us off indefinitely with more three word slogans, empty promises that have no substance, and walking away from the hard questions, while assuring us we will know all his plans and costings ‘in good time’ before the election, when we suspect from what he and Joe Hockey have said, that they will come out too late to digest.

We need to know, and it is up to our political media to prize this out of him very soon.

What do you think?

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Why does the Coalition choose to live in an imaginary world?

Because it suits Coalition members to do so. Why do so many of those in the MSM choose to crawl into that imaginary world with the Coalition? Because it suits them too.

The refuge the Coalition and its supporters have taken in their make-believe world has reached pathological proportions. They give the impression they believe the fantasies and myths they have themselves woven, that they have become addicted to them. It goes back a long way, and they show no sign of recovery. Addictive personalities know that while recognition of their condition is challenging, cure depends on it.

There are so many examples of the mythical world of Tony Abbott and his colleagues that we don’t have to go back all that far to see the telltale signs.

Remember the global financial crisis? What crisis, Coalition members recited in unison? What crisis, echoed News Limited? Joe Hockey talked about ‘the recession we never had’ as if it was a figment of economists’ imagination. ‘What recession’ he asked. For those with failing memory, or those who simply cannot accommodate uncomfortable facts, in 2008 the world suffered the largest financial downturn since the Great Depression of the thirties. The Rudd Government acted swiftly, following the Ken Henry dictum, ‘go early, go hard, go households’. A stimulus package was devised and implemented swiftly: a rapid injection of cash payments, followed by programs such as the Home Insulation Program and the Building the Education Revolution program, designed to stimulate the construction industry and support local businesses, while replacing aging school infrastructure or adding to it, followed by a more unhurried roll out of bigger infrastructure projects. It had the desired effect of avoiding recession here, keeping workers in employment and stimulating retail trade.

But in its make-believe bubble, the Coalition scarcely recognized the peril we faced, the potential it presented for massive unemployment, and the danger it posed to business. It criticized the Government’s actions. Malcolm Turnbull, in his Woodford Festival address last month, flagellated the Government for saying that the Coalition had voted against the stimulus package, insisting it had voted for it. In an address on truth in politics, it was curious that Turnbull chose to tell only half the truth. The Coalition had voted for the smaller first tranche but against the larger second. In the bubble that Turnbull lives with his Coalition colleagues, he apparently believes what he says. That is the problem.

Australia not only survived the global downturn, but also prospered, standing head and shoulders among comparable nations. It evoked words of high praise for its management of our economy during the GFC from the IMF, the World Bank and economists worldwide; our Treasurer Wayne Swan received the Euromoney Magazine’s award of the ‘world’s finance minister of the year’. Yet Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott were out there denying that Swan had done anything out of the ordinary. Why, because the GFC hardly existed here! Whenever they emerged from their bubble to travel overseas, they thumped their chests with pride at the state of our economy, but back home they tell anyone who will listen how poor it is, how mismanaged it is by an incompetent Government that has no idea how to manage money, which is heavily into reckless spending, debt and deficit. They are still at it. Although completely contrary to the facts of the economy, they drew many in the MSM into their fantasy world to sing in unison from their song-sheet, and in the process convinced many in the public likewise, a public that still ranks the Coalition above Labor in the management of the economy, and trusts it more to manage any future GFC. It is one thing to live in an imaginary world oneself, but to suck others in is reprehensible.

The fantasy continues to this day. Even now Joe Hockey hammers the Government because it borrowed money to stimulate the economy, although it is now in the process of repaying it and steadily reducing the deficit. He talks as if there was no need for the borrowing; there was no crisis to be averted, no economic disaster to be avoided. He is still on the ‘reckless spending’, ‘debt and deficit’, ‘Swan will never bring in a surplus budget’ bandwagon, as if none of what the Government did was necessary at all. It was all a bad dream that really needed no action, but in the throes of a nightmare the Government ‘panicked’ and recklessly reacted leaving us bereft and in monumental debt, spending a million dollars a day in interest. Joe Hockey would have us believe the myth that the economy and our finances are in a desperate state, when every rational economist, here and overseas, tells us the opposite.

Recently, the fund manager of BlackRock, an investment company that holds $US3.7 trillion worldwide in government bonds, in his latest update of sovereign risk, ranked Australian government bonds as the world's seventh least risky, up from 10th least risky three months ago, adding that no other nation has managed to jump three places in the latest survey. Although the finding is at odds with a claim made by Joe Hockey last August that Labor was "adversely impacting Australia's sovereign risk profile", Hockey still disagrees. BlackRock's Australian head of fixed income, Steve Miller, insisted that Australia's position was "exceedingly strong" and strengthening, but Hockey still differs. Facts are irrelevant to him in his fantasyland.

Joe lives happily in his mythical world of make believe, talking down the economy because it suits him, because it suits his narrative. He surely can’t believe his fantasies. Only the delusional could. So he simply tells lies to suit his and his colleagues’ political purposes.

Lying has been par for the course for a long while for the Coalition. It created a make-believe world around the HIP, where it declared Minister Garratt was guilty of ‘industrial manslaughter’ when four workers died installing ceiling insulation, all of which were subsequently found to have succumbed because of poor industrial safety practices. But in the Coalition's imaginary world Garratt might as well have killed them by his own neglect. News Limited screamed in harmony.

The BER was over 97% successful according to three official reports by Brad Orgill, but in the Coalition’s fantasy world, in its imaginary bubble, it was a monumental disaster, a shocking example of Labor’s profligate waste and mismanagement, with schools and parents united in opposition to this intrusion into their hallowed precincts. Julia Gillard Memorial Halls were the subject of ridicule, yet Coalition members turned up at the openings to catch a little of the reflected admiration and praise that flowed on those occasions. They emerged from their fantasy world long enough to enjoy real world recognition for a good job well done, even although they had opposed the BER all the way. The Australian newspaper, Australia’s preeminent mythmaker, eagerly followed the Coalition into its make-believe world, publishing column after column, month after month, purportedly exposing the ‘waste and mismanagement’. We hear little from that paper of the BER now because its anti-BER campaign has served its purpose – it has drawn many voters onto the BER fantasy island to sing the ‘waste and mismanagement’ song reflexly on cue. Don’t be surprised though by the reprise that will come election time.

Perhaps the most grotesque world of make believe was the one constructed by Tony Abbott with the sycophantic Greg Hunt bringing up the rear, who insisted that the evil carbon tax, ‘a tax built on a lie’, would force prices up and up and up, costing the housewife a fortune every time she opened her fridge or turned to her traditional task of ironing. Barnaby Joyce told us all that lamb roasts would cost $100. Whole industries and towns would be wiped out, and countless workers thrown on the dole queue.

The Coalition had plenty of support from News Limited, which painted sad pictures of struggling families on $150,000 a year facing untold financial stress under the carbon tax. How many voters were sucked into that bubble of make believe we shall never know, but the unpopularity of the carbon tax showed up time and again in opinion polls.

Now of course, over seven months after a price on carbon began, more and more realize they were conned. They now know that Abbott, Hunt, Joyce, Hockey and Co. sucked them into an imaginary mythical world replete with demons and dragons breathing fire. The carbon tax, like the Medusa, had a hideous face disfigured by all manner of venomous snakes to strike down our citizens. Now that they have awoken, the people realize it was just a bad dream, for some even a nightmare, that vanished with the dawn. Many now realize that this dream world, this bizarre fantasy, was a deliberately constructed product of strategic planners in the Coalition and at News Limited, for which they will pay the price for their deception, for their deliberate ‘calling wolf’. You can fool people only some of the time. While Michelle Grattan struggled to give Abbott even the tiniest slap on the wrist for ‘over-egging’ the effects of the carbon tax; many voters will not struggle planting their boot where it hurts most.

Another fantasy that Abbott and Hunt created is the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan to combat climate change. Although it will cost each household $1,300 a year, a fact almost buried by our MSM, they expect the people to crawl into the imaginary world they have constructed where 20 million trees will be planted, on semi-arid land (because farmers need all the arable land to grow food and fibre), where by definition water is scarce, by Abbott’s 15,000 strong Green Army, which will need to be recruited, deployed, housed in semi-arid environments, and of course paid. No mention is ever made of the logistics of such an exercise in a nation where labour is in short supply. It is pure fantasy. No respectable economist endorses the scheme, and environmentalists assert that it will take at least five years before growing trees could become effective carbon sinks. Yet, the MSM scarcely utters a word of condemnation for this make believe scheme, not even a word of caution. The public is allowed, even encouraged to walk into the Abbott/Hunt fantasyland of a Direct Action Plan as if it is real, as if it can work. It is a myth. They are relying on its name, and the feeling of plausibility that it evokes, to convince the people it is real. But it is fiction, deliberately planned fiction. Hunt has recently added to the fantasy by saying it is ‘inconceivable’ that Labor would not support the Coalition in abolishing the carbon tax, should Labor lose in 2013.

If you think that my accusation that the Coalition and its fellow travelers live in an imaginary world is insufficiently contemporary, reflect on Joe Hockey’s recent comments about Labor’s concession that it might not be able to meet its planned budget surplus. Why might this be so? Even the disinterested must know that the prices for iron ore, coal, and gas have come off their peak, that demand from big buyers such as China has fallen, and that as a result revenue from mining has fallen far below expectations, expectations based on estimates made years previously.

Yet Joe Hockey, talking from his imaginary world where he avoids acknowledging that anything has changed, would have us believe that lower commodity prices and diminished sales are illusory and therefore ought to have no effect on revenue. At least he hopes, as does his leader, that we will believe that piece of make-believe and swallow his line that failing to reach a surplus is just another ‘broken promise’, and a ‘solemnly made one’ to boot. Hockey’s charade continued all this week in QT, where he tabled copies of hundreds of instances where a surplus had been promised, although it had been pointed out by the PM in her NPC address, and repeatedly in answers to questions, the economic facts underlying her change of tack. Wayne Swan marvelled that Hockey and the Coalition could be in such denial of these facts, could live in their ‘alternative universe’ where such facts are of no consequence, and could not understand that Labor considered it sounder economically to protect jobs and foster growth than seek a surplus at their cost.

Hockey avoids reality. Competing as he does with his leader for the title of mythmaker-in-chief, he retreats into his own fantasyland where the only facts allowed in are the ones he finds convenient; the inconvenient ones are dispersed in a puff of blue smoke at the tip of his magic inconvenient-fact wand. His intent is simply to lampoon the Government and his counterpart, to reinforce the ‘Labor can’t manage money’ myth, and to add ‘another Labor lie’ to the Coalition’s long list.

Hockey even had the temerity to insist that the recent lowering of interest rates was a sign that the economy was tanking, this from a man who has boasted endlessly that interest rates will always be lower under a Coalition government. He walks into his own fantasyland where low interest rates under Labor are bad, but under the Coalition are good. As Humpty Dumpty would have said: ‘Interest rates can mean whatever I want them to mean’.

In their fantasy worlds, Abbott and Hockey admit no bouquets for the Gillard Government’s many reforms and accomplishments, but, like squirrels hoarding for winter, are able to accommodate any number of brickbats to hurl at the Government. Anything that might be used to demean the PM or her Government is stored for future use. Even on the occasion of Julia Gillard visiting her recently widowed mother for Christmas was used by Hockey to demean her as gutless for not returning to Canberra to make the deficit announcement.

Yet, he and his Coalition colleagues seem able to airbrush away any suggestion that there has been a conspiracy to imperil the elected government in what is now termed ‘Ashbygate'. The Coalition fantasyland disallows admission to anything that is damaging to it.

This piece asserts that the Coalition, its prime spokesmen on matters economic, Abbott, Hockey, Cormann, and Joyce, and its many sycophantic media journalists, live in an imaginary world that Coalition strategists construct in order to run a narrative that is consistently negative to the Gillard Government.

I hope this piece will establish a mindset among readers about what is really happening, rather than what the largely compliant media would have us believe. We need to go into 'politics 2013' aware of how the public is being conned, over and over again, with myth after myth. Realizing that most voters are disinterested in politics and many disgusted with the political play they have seen for two years now, knowing how messages need to be simple and plausible even if dishonest, Coalition strategists construct plausible, even attractive imaginary worlds, fantasylands into which they lure the incautious and the disinterested to soak up the fantasy, to convince the unthinking that at every step, with every move, the Gillard Government is a disaster, an ongoing failure from which recovery is impossible.

But these strategists, these political figures, these columnists are not stupid. They are intelligent and cunning. So the question that begs an answer is: ‘Do they really believe this crap?’ If they do, they are delusional and ought to be on medication. If they don’t, they are unmitigated liars determined to deceive the people of Australia and con them into voting Coalition. The latter alternative more aptly fits the bill.

What do you think?

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Forty-nine questions for Tony Abbott about global warming

As the mainstream media seems unwilling to, or incapable of asking Tony Abbott to explain his way of thinking about global warming, and more importantly explain his policies to combat it, let’s do so here. There are critically important questions that need answers if the electorate is to choose between Labor and the Coalition at the coming election. How can it vote without knowing?

First, let’s tease out where Abbott stands. Let’s not bother with Greg Hunt. Despite his expertise in environmental issues, his opinions are irrelevant as he slavishly follows everything Abbott says, and even if he doesn’t believe it, he has an array of weasel words to avoid disagreeing with his master. Abbott calls all the shots. Let’s not worry about Warren Truss with his bizarre statement that the recent bushfires have emitted as much CO2 as a decade of burning coal, or Barnaby Joyce either. The fact that the cost of a lamb roast is falling, rather than hiking to $100 as he predicted it would with the carbon tax, has cruelled what little credibility on climate change Barnaby ever had.

For starters, how can we know what Abbott really believes? Is it: ‘Climate change is crap.’ uttered at a meeting in Beaufort, an utterance subsequently airbrushed over with Abbott-speak? Is it: ‘Climate change is occurring, and mankind is contributing, but the extent is uncertain.’? Is it: ‘The science is highly contentious, to say the least.’? Is it: ‘If man-made CO2 was quite the villain that many of these people say it is, why hasn't there just been a steady increase [in temperature] starting in 1750, and moving in a linear way up the graph?’ Or is it: ‘It was hotter in Jesus’ days.’? We know he doesn’t accept responsibility for his spoken words, only for scripted, written ones. Has he written anything on the subject? Point us to it.

Is his willingness to publically associate himself with arch climate denier Lord Monckton a sign that he endorses Monckton’s views, or at least considers them credible?

So the questions for the man who wants to be PM begin:

Do you believe the evidence evinced by climate scientists that over many decades the global temperature has been, and still is increasing significantly?

Do you believe their evidence that this is due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases that trap heat near the earth’s surface?

Do you believe that human activity has been responsible for the scientifically-documented large increase in one of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and that it has played a dominant role in global warming, as documented in 99.8% of around 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject over the past two decades?

Do you accept climate scientists’ evidence that unless the increase in global temperature is held to 2 degrees C, serious changes to climate will occur?

Do you accept the scientists’ evidence of the disastrous effects on climate, arable land, forests, oceans, coastal habitation, wildlife, human existence and social cohesion of still higher increases?

Do you accept the scientist’s evidence that the increasing number of extreme adverse weather events we are now experiencing: widespread bushfires and now tornados, record rain and flooding in Eastern Australia, are likely a manifestation of global warming, and that these will increase as global temperatures rise?

Where were you when Warren Truss made his grossly erroneous statements about the bushfires? Where was Greg Hunt?

What do you make of reports on global warming from the Federal Government Climate Commission, from Professor David Karoly, Professor of Meteorology and an ARC Federation Fellow in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, and from Bureau of Meteorology scientists: Neil Plummer et al writing in The Conversation?

How will you answer George Monbiot’s question in his January article in The Guardian: Heatwave: Australia's new weather demands a new politics: ”I wonder what Tony Abbott will say about the record heat-wave now ravaging his country?”

Unless Abbott’s answers to these questions are affirmative, there is not much point in proceeding, as logically no action would be necessary. But as he has what is styled a Direct Action Plan to counter carbon emissions, can we presume his answers would be at least tentatively positive? Unless of course his Plan is simply an empty charade devised by a skeptic wanting to give the impression he is prepared to do something about climate change. Let’s give him the benefit of any doubt people may justifiably harbour.

He has pledged to repeal the carbon tax from the moment he is elected, should that happen. The Liberal website elaborately describes the steps in The Coalition's Plan to Abolish the Carbon Tax, even to the extent of a double dissolution of parliament, if he doesn’t get his way. His determined approach leads to the next questions:

As placing a price on carbon pollution is designed to penalize emitters and thereby reduce emissions, and also to encourage the use of renewable energy sources, and as the evidence is mounting that this is already occurring even in the seven months of the carbon tax (lower power usage and lower coal-generated power), do you believe that this trend towards lower emissions would continue after abolishing the carbon tax?

If the evidence is that abolishing the carbon tax will result in higher carbon pollution, how could you justify increasing pollution by this action?

Since part of the Coalition’s plan is that: “On day one, the Environment Minister will instruct the Department to commence the implementation of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan on climate change and carbon emissions.”, you may care to address some questions about your DAP, questions that the media seldom ask you to answer.

Since very few economists, and almost no environmentalists give your DAP any credence, how can you present it as a credible alternative to the Government’s carbon pricing arrangement which will lead to an emissions trading scheme that will operate in a world trading market?

What evidence do you have that paying polluters with taxpayer’s money to reduce their pollution will be more effective than penalizing them for their pollution as the carbon tax does? How can you know that your ‘carrot’ will be more effective than the ‘stick’?

Is it your intention, as Malcolm Turnbull has suggested, to present your DAP as an alternative that can easily be scrapped as its implementation turns out to be unfeasible? Did you engage climate skeptics Maurice Newman as business adviser, and Dick Warburton as carbon emissions adviser, to enable you to do this?

These are fundamental questions to which the electorate needs answers before it votes later this year. It needs to know whether to vote for the Labor scheme about which it knows, or for the Coalition’s DAP, which on the face of it looks like a Mickey Mouse scheme, although the cost is said to be $10.5 billion, the source of which has not been revealed.

As its centerpiece is the planting of some 20 millions trees to act as carbon sinks, please explain to us some of the details:

From where will the trees be sourced? What sort of trees?

How large an area will be needed to plant them?

As you have stated that semi-arable land would be used, since all the existing arable land is needed for farming food and fibre, where will you find the large amount of land you will need?

How will the trees be planted – can we presume your Green Army would do this?

How will you enlist the 15,000 members you say will comprise your Green Army?

How will you transport them to semi-arable locations, house them, and provision them?

How much will all this cost?

Has provision been made for this cost in your budget? Over what period?

Who will be the employer and provide occupational health and safety, benefits and insurance? How will the logistics of such a vast operation be managed?

Since you have heralded the abolition of the climate change department, what government department will oversee and administer the DAP?

How long will it take to plant 20 million trees?

Once planted, how will the trees be watered and nurtured until growth is well established in their semi-arable locations? At what ongoing cost?

How will you protect this vast forest against the destructive forces of bushfires, the devastation of which is contemporaneously apparent to us all?

Do you accept the scientific opinion that it will take around five years before trees can become worthwhile carbon sinks?

Under your DAP, what happens about reducing carbon pollution in the meantime?

As your Plan also involves sequestering carbon in soil in the form of biochar, how and where will char be produced, transported and buried in agricultural environments? At what cost?

What evidence do you have that this will be cost-effective, and that it will enhance the land? How long will it take to show a benefit?

You have been vehemently critical of the economic effects of placing a price on carbon, predicting that the costs of everything would go up and up and up, and that jobs, industries, and whole townships would be decimated. This leads to the next questions:

Is it true that every household would bear a cost of $1300 for your DAP, and receive no compensation, such as is in place right now?

If so, how can you justify this household cost of $1300, while criticizing the Government’s carbon price, for which most households are fully compensated?

Have you work-shopped how you will remove existing compensation from pensioners and families, as promised, and manage the disruption and resentment that move will inevitably precipitate?

Have you modeled the economic effects of the $1300 imposition?

While businessmen and industry leaders always wish for lower taxes, their yearning for certainty is very strong.

Have you work-shopped how they might react when over a year after the introduction of a price on carbon, during which they have taken action to reduce pollution and thereby the penalty they need to pay, and having invested in renewables, they find that they have to adjust to a new arrangement where there is no carbon price?

Have you considered the possibility that they may resent having to again adjust their plans?

Have you considered that having adjusted to a price on carbon they may be in harmony with its purpose, and not wish to go backwards?

Have you considered the possibility of a business backlash against your plans?

How do you explain the rapidly diminishing number of complaints to the ACCC about the carbon tax, now down to almost zero?

Forty-nine questions. Until the voters have answers to them, how can they compare what Abbott and the Coalition are offering to counter the existential threat of escalating global warming and all the consequences it will bring in its wake if it is not restricted to 2 degrees C, and the disastrous effects of greater increases?

Come on Mr Abbott, answer these pivotal questions – take us into the recesses of your mind where your thoughts about global warming swirl around.

Come on you journalists in the mainstream media – ask Mr Abbott these questions, and insist on cogent answers. Don’t avoid the questions, and don’t accept bland answers, obfuscation, devious answers, or weasel words? Don’t allow him to walk away when the questions get too hard. Do your job. He will not spontaneously give the electorate his answers; it is up to you to wheedle them out of him. So far, you have failed dismally. You have let us down disgracefully. Lift your game.

The Fourth Estate needs to take up the global warming cudgels, and if it continues to turn a blind eye, the Fifth Estate needs to shame it into action.

What do you think?

If you decide to disseminate this post by activating the ‘Disseminate this post’ option in the shaded panel at the foot or top of this piece, it will be sent to the following pre-selected Federal parliamentarians, in alphabetical order: Tony Abbott, Adam Bandt, Greg Combet, Julia Gillard, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Robert Oakeshott, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, and Tony Windsor. If you have selected your local member, he or she will get a copy of the email.

TPS M@IL: a new communication tool

How many times have you wished you could email a politician or a journalist, or forward to them a piece posted on The Political Sword, but found it too difficult because you didn’t have the correct email address, or perhaps didn’t know who it might be best to contact? Over the end-of-year break, our Webmaster, Web Monkey, and I have been creating TPS M@IL. He has developed the design and the backend code to support the system, and has added several innovative features to what was originally intended to be a simple facility to enable you to send emails to politicians and journalists from your own email system.

TPS M@IL works differently from the usual mail applications as it uses your OWN email system to do the heavy lifting. Why you may ask? Well, firstly mailing politicians and their staff is a serious matter and we don't wish to provide a mechanism to spam them. So any email you wish to send will be guaranteed to be your OWN and not from our email system, or from our server's IP address. While TPS M@IL is a safe and convenient way of contacting politicians and journalists, it provides no link to The Political Sword so that spammers can't cause us to be blacklisted.

Let's elaborate.

TPS M@IL was initially designed to make it easy for you to quickly find the email addresses you want by selecting them from a database of Federal politicians or political journalists. But Web Monkey has added a feature you will find handy – a series of custom lists already compiled for you. For example, if the subject of your communication is Federal finance, instead of you having to recall the names of politicians whose portfolio responsibilities lie within finance, they have already been identified in the first of the eighteen portfolio lists that are available for your selection. To prepare your email, you would simply select ‘Finance spokespersons’, and the email addresses of the relevant politicians from all sides of Federal politics would be automatically loaded into the ‘To’ line in YOUR OWN email system. All you then have to do is type in your message, ‘sign’ it, and send it. More of this later.

The Political Sword – now established as a hub for the Fifth Estate – is already influencing opinion in the arena of Federal politics. To extend that influence, Web Monkey has added a further feature to TPS M@IL to enable you to bring pieces on The Political Sword, and the comments it evoked, directly to the attention of politicians and journalists. Let us explain these features in more detail.

TPS M@IL explained

First, to enable TPS M@IL, click the title of the piece.

When you use TPS M@IL, you will find two facilities:
- one that enables you to disseminate pieces that are posted on The Political Sword,
- and another that enables you to create your own email to politicians or journalists.

From now on, at the top and foot of each new piece on TPS, you will find a shaded panel with four TPS M@IL options: Disseminate this post; Create your own email; FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions); and Identify local member.

Go first to the last option: Identify local member which enables you to select your current representative in the Federal House of Representatives. You should use this option on your initial use of TPS M@IL. You will not need to return to this option.

When you click: ‘Identify local member’, a window displaying a database will appear, from which you can select your local member. The index at the foot of the table guides you to the page (1-17) where your member is situated. Find your member, then click ‘Select’ and the name of your local member will appear near the top of the window. If you make a mistake, simply select the correct name. Subsequently, any email you send will include your local member's email address copied into your Cc: line. If you don’t wish this to be so, do not select your local member. 

The first option in the shaded panel: Disseminate this post enables you to send the title and URL of the current post to pre-selected politicians and political journalists. The author of the piece on TPS will select the recipients depending on the subject of the post. In all instances, the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, and the Greens Leader will be included, and for example if the subject was finance, the recipients would also include Wayne Swan, Penny Wong, David Bradbury, Bernie Ripoll and Bill Shorten for the Government; Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Tony Smith and Arthur Sinodinos for the Coalition; Adam Bandt for the Greens; and some Independents.

The author will also create some text for your email message.

When you click: ‘Disseminate this post YOUR email system will open with all the pre-selected email addresses in your email’s ‘To’ line, the subject matter in the ‘Subject’ line, and some explanatory text in the body of the email. All you have to do is ‘sign’ the email, and ‘send’ it.

We trust this will make the dissemination of posts on TPS to selected politicians and journalists very quick and easy. We invite you to use it.

The second option in the shaded panel: ‘Create your own email’ enables you to send an email to selected politicians or journalists.

When you click: ‘Create your own email’, drop down text appears. The first line gives you the opportunity to learn a little more about TPS M@IL when you click: ‘click here to read about TPS M@IL…’

Under that, you will find a series of headings:
Ad Astra’s custom lists,
Email a politician,
Email a journalist, and
Create your own mixed list.

Ad Astra’s custom lists
This feature is designed to make it easy for you to select a group of politicians to whom you may wish you send an email.

The list begins:
Top ALP heavyweights
Top Coalition heavyweights
Power brokers in the parliament
The country’s top political journalists
People of influence in the media

After that, there are eighteen portfolio lists where those involved in these portfolios have already been selected. They are drawn from the three major parties and the Independents. An example of one portfolio area: ‘Finance spokespersons’ has been given above.

For each of the options listed there is a ‘load/modify’ link that enables you to load into your email system the email addresses that have been pre-selected. The names of those that have been pre-selected are displayed near the top of the window in alphabetical order. You can modify that list by adding to it or deleting from it, using the Add and Delete options on the right side of the window. If you add, the name added will be displayed near the top of the window in red and the name will appear in the list in alphabetical order; if you delete, 'Name removed from the list' will appear in red, and you will see that the name has been removed from the list.

Email a politician
The first heading here is: Email individual politicians. If you need help, click ‘Click here for help’.

Under that is ‘Click here to create a politician list’. When you do, a window appears that displays a database of Federal politicians from which you can select as many as you wish. As you do so, each newly selected name will appear in red near the top of the window indicating it has been added, and under that you will see the name has been added to the list you are compiling, which is in alphabetical order.

When your list is complete, click ‘click here to send your email’, and the email addresses will be added to the address line of YOUR EMAIL system. All you have to do then is to type in your message, ‘sign’ it and ‘send’ it. The recipients will see that the email has come from YOU through your email system, NOT from The Political Sword.

The next heading is: Email a Party. Under that you can select ‘All Parties’ or an individual Party, and you can then filter your selection by selecting ‘All States’ or an individual State.

Do realize though that a character limit is imposed. This is a browser based limitation and not that of TPS M@IL. Thus you may not be able to email all parties in all states at the one time.  A notice in red will appear if you have exceeded the character limit, with instructions about how to proceed.

When you have made your selection, you click the ‘Submit’ button, whereupon ‘Click here to open your email appears in red. Click this, and the email addresses of your selection will be loaded into YOUR email system, ready for you to add your message, your signature and ‘send’.

Email a journalist
Under that heading is: ‘Click here to create a journalist list’. When you do, a window appears that displays a database of political journalists from which you can select as many as you wish. The list is limited at present, because it is quite difficult to ascertain journalists’ email addresses. Please let us have any that are not on the list and we will add them in.

In the same way that applies to selecting individual politicians, as you select journalists, the newly added one will be displayed near the top of the window, and the name will be added to the list you are creating. Once you have finalised your list, click ‘click here to send your email’ and the email addresses will be added to the address line of YOUR email system. All you have to do then is to type in your message, ‘sign’ it and ‘send’ it. As with emails to politicians, the journalist recipients will see that the email has come from YOU through your email system, NOT from The Political Sword.

Create your own mixed list
This option enables you to create your own mixed list of politicians and journalists, and any other category we might add later. This option works the same as if you were selecting just politicians or just journalists.

When you click: ‘Click here to create your own mixed list’, a window appears that displays a database of both politicians and political journalists from which you can select. You can identify which is which: all politicians have 'gov' in their email address. Once selected, click ‘click here to send your email’, and proceed as described above with the individual politicians’ and journalists’ lists.

The third option in the shaded panel: Frequently Asked Questions takes you to a page where FAQ’s are addressed and answered.

We trust that you will find the system that we have designed easy to understand and easy to use, and that, with just a few simple mouse clicks, it enables you to make your voice more easily heard by those in power, and those who contribute in the media.  We feel you will find Ad Astra's lists particularly useful.  If you have a list of your own that you feel would be a useful addition, please send it to us.

We will welcome any feedback you can give us on the use of the system. Please let us know of any problems you encounter, any confusion you might experience, and of course any ways in which we might improve TPS M@IL.

We hope you enjoy the experience of using TPS M@IL. The previous piece The Gillard-Abbott gap widens is offered to enable you to try out TPS M@IL and in particular the Disseminate this post option. You may also use it to send an email to one or more politicians or journalists. Click the above link to go to the piece to see how TPS M@IL works.

Web Monkey and Ad Astra

The Gillard-Abbott gap widens

For Labor supporters, 2013 holds great promise. An election is scheduled for later in the year, when Julia Gillard will ask the people of Australia to elect her Government for another term. The alternative is an Abbott-led Coalition Government.

The year has started well for the PM.

She has announced terms of reference for the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse, appointed the Commissioners, and set the timetable for reporting. It has been widely acclaimed.

She has also reaffirmed her passion for implementing the Gonski Report, and initiating the NDIS in 2013. Her ‘message to Australia’ printed in the Herald Sun, shows her commitment to an Australia that is both strong and fair, but also smart, one built on a great education for all. Her message, one written from the heart, is inspiring.

I wonder how Tony Abbott’s message to Australia would read. If the recent promise on the Liberal website: Our plan to abolish the Carbon Tax is any guide, it would include a recital of how he would destroy Labor’s carbon pricing scheme before it could morph into an emissions trading scheme in 2015, how he will abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and how he would implement his Direct Action Plan, one he still has to explain to the people. He might mention how he will ‘demolish’ the NBN, although his ability to do that, or for that matter abolish the ‘carbon tax’, is questionable. No doubt an Abbott message to Australia would reflect his usual negative approach that seeks to destroy what Labor has worked so hard to achieve.

After a brief holiday with her recently widowed mother, PM Gillard return to Kirribilli to host a reception for victims of child abuse, one that showed her empathy with them and her determination to see them receive a hearing and justice. The media gave the event good coverage.  She has since visited fire-ravaged areas in Tasmania and New South Wales.

Tony Abbott said he was carrying out firefighting duties, well publicised in the media.

I suppose the letup in media items adverse to the PM and her Government is attributable to the end-of-year break and holiday time for journalists who specialise in such writing. But it was surprising to read Sid Maher’s article in The Australian on 7 January nominating Julia Gillard for the newspaper's 'Australian of the Year'. It began: ”If any politician has shown resilience, endurance and determination in the face of adversity it is Julia Gillard. Ms Gillard starts the year as the nation's preferred prime minister ahead of Tony Abbott despite a year of political turmoil in which she soundly defeated a leadership challenge from Kevin Rudd and faced down a concerted opposition attack on the carbon tax.” It ended with a reiteration: ”Her resilience, endurance and determination in the face of adversity make her a worthy nominee for this newspaper's Australian of the Year.” Of course, she may not be nominated. We remember how Kevin Rudd was successfully selected a few years back, accompanied by a flattering photo of him against the background of his library shelves, only to be pilloried by that newspaper thereafter.

Will Tony Abbott be on the list of nominees to be judged ”by a panel of senior editors and the winner announced on January 19 in The Weekend Australian.”? What will he and his supporters feel if he is not on the list?

While individual polls of voting intention have no value in predicting election outcomes this far from an election, the accompanying questions do give some insight into the opinions of those polled on a variety of topics, on the relative popularity of the leaders, and the how voters regard their political attributes. This Monday’s Essential Report, shows that in the four months since September 2012, Julia Gillard has improved her ratings on virtually all the positive attributes, some by a substantial margin, and she has rated lower on nearly all the negative.

As Essential says: ”Gillard’s key attributes were hard-working (72%), intelligent (72%), out of touch with ordinary people (53%), a capable leader (50%) and good in a crisis (50%). Almost all positive leader attributes for Gillard moved up from the last time the question was polled in September 2012. The biggest shifts on the positive attributes were on a capable leader (+7%) and good in a crisis (+7%).”

Tony Abbott too has improved his ratings a little on the positive attributes, but has slipped on the negative attributes. As Essential puts it: “Abbott’s key attributes were hard-working (70%), intelligent (64%), arrogant (61%), narrow-minded (56%), aggressive (55%) and out of touch with ordinary people (54%).

But it is the comparison of the leaders that is most revealing.

Julia Gillard rates higher than Tony Abbott in almost all positive attributes, some by a considerable margin, and lower than him in negative attributes, again by a considerable margin. The Essential Report reads: ”Compared to Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard is seen as more likely to be considered good in a crisis (+11%), intelligent (+8%) and a capable leader (+7%). Abbott is regarded by significantly more respondents to be arrogant (+14%), narrow minded (+11%), intolerant (+12%) and erratic (+11%).”

That just about sums it up, and explains to some extent the difference in the leaders’ popularity.

This week’s Newspoll, reported here and here, shows little movement in popularity. Julia Gillard has a satisfaction rating of 38 (up two) and a dissatisfaction rating of 49 (down three) giving a net rating of minus 11, while Tony Abbott's ratings were 29 (up one) and 58 (down one) giving a net rating of minus 29. That speaks for itself.

In the preferred PM stakes, Julia Gillard gained two percentage points against Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister and now leads by 12 points: 45 to 33 per cent.

The gap between PM Gillard and Opposition Leader Abbott is wide, and widening. The gap reflects what the electorate sees as the growing difference between the nation’s alternative leaders.

Labor supporters will be encouraged by the six point rise in Labor’s primary vote to 38% in Newspoll, way above its dismal depths last year, and the fall by two points in the Coalition’s primary vote to 44%, giving a TPP of 51/49. While we should avoid any feelings that this result is predictive, it is certainly more reassuring than a movement the other way. What is of some predictive value is the trend of recent polls, which both pollsters and analysts agree is moving in Labor’s favour. Possum Comitatus’ Pollytrend shows this clearly even before being updated by the latest Newspoll, and Andrew Catsaras’ Poll of Polls will show it when Insiders resumes. These trends point in a positive predictive way for Labor.

So while the gap is steadily widening between how the electorate regards PM Gillard and Opposition Leader Abbott, in Julia Gillard’s favour, the gap between the TPP of the two major parties shows a steady narrowing trend.

All this is good news for Julia Gillard and her Government as they approach the predicted tumult that will surely characterise the election year as Tony Abbott bares his teeth and shows again all his destructiveness, as he pulls out all the negative stops, as he engages in hand-to-hand, bare-knuckle combat, as he tries to land the killer blow that will flatten his opponent on the canvas bruised, bloodied and defeated and entitle him to raise his hand triumphantly and claim the prize he has always believed should have been his from the beginning.

The gap between Tony Abbott’s pipe dream, and the reality he now faces in a resurgent Julia Gillard, is wide and widening. It may never close.

What do you think?

This piece is posted to give TPS users a chance to try out the features of TPS Mail, which will be launched later in the weekend.

Thank you to all who comment here

Lyn, in addition to providing links every weekday and Twitterverse and Twitterati regularly, has kept an account of the pseudonyms of those who have commented on The Political Sword since its inception in 2008.

While our statistics tell us that a large number visit here but never leave a comment, there are regulars who frequently leave comments and many who comment occasionally. To these folk we have a deep sense of gratitude. You, who comment here, make this site what it has become, a site where informed, intelligent contributions are made to the debate on the existing thread, and also on a host of items related to politics here and overseas. You also leave links to valuable material from a variety of sources that keep TPS users informed and up-to-date. Lyn’s Links and your contributions have made The Political Sword a hub for the Fifth Estate. From here, users branch out from the hub to a huge range of resources all around the globe.

The purpose of this short piece is to say, on this, the last day of 2012, thank you for all you have contributed to The Political Sword over the years, and to invite you to redouble your contributions as we move into 2013.

Next year the nation will have to decide whether it wants the Gillard Government to continue for another term, or whether it wants to hand the reins of power to Tony Abbott and the Coalition that he leads. There could scarcely be a starker contrast for the electorate to consider. Those who cynically repeat catchphrases that all politicians are the same and parties likewise, show their appalling ignorance of politics here, and a dangerous lack of understanding of the fundamental difference between progressive parties and conservatives the world over. While this difference is most grossly demonstrated in US politics, it is replicated here. So stark is the contrast that reconciliation is not possible, especially with the conservative leadership that exists in this country.

We who endorse the thrust of The Political Sword, which clearly supports the return of the Gillard Government and is opposed to the installation of a Coalition government led by the most negative, conservative, policy light, destructive, pugilistic politician in living memory, have the task of advocating for that end. There are powerful forces in the Fourth Estate who believe that their ideological and commercial interests will be served best by a Coalition government, forces which will be pitted against the Gillard Government, and which will use all the power and influence they can to bring it down, and install the Coalition.

All that you have to offer will be needed throughout the entire Fifth Estate, and here on The Political Sword, to counter the adversarial forces of the Fourth Estate. We need your help.

Here is Lyn’s list of contributors, over four hundred, in most instances along with the date of first contributing, which we present with our heartfelt thanks for all you have done for The Political Sword over the years.


A BOOR’S BOAR 9/10/2011
ADAM 14/2/2011
ALCYONE 1/11/2012
ANDY 13/5/2012
ANDREW SMITH 21/2/2011
AMY RORKE 24/8/2011
ANNIE THROPE 14/3/2011
ANDREW () 1/11/2012
ANGYBEE 29/10/2012
ANN 18/6/2010
AUSDAVO 13/9/2012
AUSTIN 3:6 9/7/2012

BACCHUS 20/7/2012
BARRY KAYDE 5/4/2012
BARRY TUCKER 26/10/2012 - OWN BLOG truthinmediaresourcecentre
BEN 20/5/2012
BEN JANAAM 9/01/2012
BEN MCINTYRE 23/10/2010
BENNYG 12/5/2012
BIG SMOKE 28/12/2012
BILLIE 19/02/2012
BOB MACALBA 24/11/2012
BOBALOT 22/8/2010
BUBBA RAY 25/6/2010
BSA BOB 4/1/2011

CJM 30/7/2011
CASABLANCA 25/8/2010

CATEY 8/9/2011
CATCHING UP 12/11/2010
CHRIS BLAIR 6/4/2012
CHRIS T 8/5/2012
CHRIS 29/10/2012
CHRISTINE H 26/9/2012
CHRISTOL 27/02/2012
CLARKIE 27/4/2011
COSMAN 16/5/2011
CROWEY 16/4/2011
CUPPA 24/10/2011

DD 29/6/2011
DAFID 23/4/2012
DALESMAN 6/6/2012
DAN 6/6/2012
DANNY LEWIS 27/3/2012
DARRENC 27/3/2012
DAMIEN 29/11/2010
DAVID LEWIS 6/9/2011
DONG 20/8/2010

EASYGOING777 2/2/2011
ECTRA 25/8/2011
EDDIE 22/7/2012
EDDY L 20/6/2010
EL GORDO 6/9/2011
ERIC 16/11/2011
ERIN 11/9/2012
EVE WHITE 17/3/2011

FIONA 20/02/2012
FIZ 6/6/2011
FLUFFULA 14/3/2011
FRANC 13/5/2012
FRANCO 31/01/2012
FRANK 24/8/2012
FRANKED 12/6/2012

GAFFHOOK 17/5/2010
GARY 7/9/2010
GARY M 18/4/2012
GILLIAN 30/7/2012
GK 14/7/2012
GEORGE PIKE 14/7/2010
GLENNIS 6/5/2012
GLORFINDEL 29/6/2010
GRAMPS 27/8/2012
GRANNIE 26/02/2012
GRAVEL 21/5/2010
GREG 6/6/2011
GUN 25/01/2012

HADERAK 28/6/2012
HAMBO 29/8/2010
HOLLYWOOD 21/6/2010


JAEGER 30/7/2010
JANE 30/1/2011
JANET 11/8/2012 JAN @ J4GYPSY
JARA 28/8/2011
JASON 7/5/2010
JAYCEE 12/5/2012
JEAN 6/9/2011
JENNY 17/3/2011
JESS 24/7/2010 - OWN BLOG
JIMBO 3/6/2010
JOA 2/4/2012
JOE 2 8/6/2010
JOE HOMER 24/02/2012
JOHN J 25/10/2010
JOHN L 13/02/2012 TPS AUTHOR
JJ 30/7/2010

KAREN 14/5/2012
KATE 5/7/2011
KEITH D 31/3/2012
KEN 17/3/2011
KHTAGH 22/7/2012

LADY IN RED 4/5/2012
LAURA 10/4/2012
LAWRIE JAY 3/9/2012
LEFTY 20/11/2010
LESLEY DE VOIL 13/9/2012
LEONE BRITT 28/11/2011
LIBERTY JACK 22/3/2011
LIBBY X 33 20/7/2012
LITTLE JAN 28/4/2011
LINDA 12/5/2012
LOL 23/112012
LT FRED 24/8/2012
LUKE 8/5/2012
LYNE LADY 26/02/2012
LYNCHPIN 18/6/2010

MAC 4/9/2012
MACONDO 11/8/2012
MANDY MACK 20/02/2012
MAGROVE JACK 13/5/2012
MARILYN 6/9/2011
MARIAN RUMENS 10/02/2012
MARK HYDE 20/4/2012
MARK LEAHY 24/8/2011
MARKAT 24/11/2012
MARKS 26/9/2011
MARTYN TONKS 31/5/2012
MARY 10/7/2012
MEGPIE 71 15/7/2012
MEL 20/02/2012
MERCURIAL 15/9/2012
MERLIN 9/9/2011
MICHAEL Z 23/6/211
MICK 23/7/2011
MICHELLE 8/9/2010
MIGLO 17/5/2010
MICK OF KAMBAH 27/10/2010
MIKEY 26/9/2011
MIN 16/6/2010
MWS 10/7/2012

NASKING 17/5/2010
NATURE 5 25/5/2010
NELLIE MAY 13/9/2012
NEO THE FAT CAT 6/6/2012
NITE LITE 11/4/2012
NORMAL 29/6/2010
NORMAN K 30/5/2010
NOTUS 18/10/2011
NUDIE FISH 24/6/2012

OZ FROG 25/6/2010
OZYMAN 19/9/2011

PADDYBTS 19/02/2012
PAT 5/9/2011
PAUL WALTER 16/6/2011
PAUL WELLO 19/7/2012
PB 15/10/2012
PER ARDUA 30/1/2011
PETER P 11/7/2012
PIKIRANKU 1/6/2012
PILGRIM 10/10/2012
PJ 14/10/ 2012
PJF 25/5/2012
PHIL 13/8/2012
POLYQUATS 22/8/2010
PSYCLAW 29/6/2011
PUFF TMD 19/4/2012

QIER 25/9/2010
QZQ 2/7/2012

RAJA CUHE 15/9/2011
RHIANNON 27/6/2011
RHYTHYMZ 5/5/2012
RGBRG 16/7/2012
RENAE 15/5/2011
RN 30/7/2010
ROB 2/7/2012
ROCK 3/9/2012
ROGER 16/3/2011
ROBYN EVANS 13/5/2012
ROBYNNE 15/10/2012
ROCCO 4/3/2012
ROD BOULTON 29/6/2011
ROSWELL 29/6/2010
ROWAN 20/8/2010

SALLY 22/5/2010
SANCHEZ 19/7/2012
SANDRA 13/5/2012
SANDY 27/6/2010
SAM 26/6/2010
SAPPERK9 15/02/2012
SCOTT 3/10/2011
SENEXX 4/6/2010 - OWN BLOG
SHANE 20/02/2012
SHAUN 28/8/2011
SHIRLEY 10/4/2012
SIMON 29/6/2010
SMITHE 14/7/2012
SPROCKET 3/3/2012
STEVE 777 24/8/2012
STEVE 9/5/2011
SUE 9/5/2011
SUE 2 20/9/2011
SUZYQ 2/4/2012

TAO DE HAAS 26/10/2012
TEDDY SEA 1/12/2012
TIFFANY232 5/3/2011
TIM BADRICK 21/6/2011
TIN CAN 14/5/2012
TCEPSER 21/6/2010
THE MOOR 14/6/2012
THEODRIC 15/5/2010
TODD 27/9/2012
THORNEY 15/5/2010
TONY S 27/4/2011
TREDLGT 21/8/2010
TREVOR 11/8/2011
TRUTH SEEKER 29/6/2012
TYLER 11/5/2012
TYPECAST 12/2/2011

URIAH 10/9/2012

VAL 2/3/2012
VALERIE 29/7/2010

WAKE UP 8/6/2012
WAYNE 15/9/2011
WEE WILLY 23/8/2011
WHAT IS MORE 26/8/2012
WOODPEAR 6/12/2012

XIAOECHO 13/8/2012


ZAC SPITZER 14/10/2012

42 LONG 13/5/2012
2353 10/8/2010

Focus on crap detecting: Postman and Weingartner

This is the third in the end-of-year series that have focussed on aspects of politics. This one uses Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s brilliant 1969 paperback Teaching as a Subversive Activity as the framework for this piece. I found this book facilitated more insights into the purposes of education that most of the formal texts on education. I was disappointed when I lost my copy some years ago, but delighted recently when I found a PDF version published online by Oregon State University.

The title of the first chapter was ‘Crap Detecting’, which although written in the context of the educational process, has significant implications for the political process. This piece gathers together parts of this chapter, in italics, which I annotate with comments, in bold, that relate Postman and Weingartner’s words to contemporary politics. Any bolding of the original text is mine.

The ‘Crap Detecting’ chapter begins:

“'In 1492, Columbus discovered America....' Starting from this disputed fact, each one of us will describe the history of this country in a somewhat different way. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that most of us would include something about what is called the 'democratic process', and how Americans have valued it, or at least have said they valued it. Therein lies a problem: one of the tenets of a democratic society is that men be allowed to think and express themselves freely on any subject, even to the point of speaking out against the idea of a democratic society. To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of this freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively. This is necessary so that the society may continue to change and modify itself to meet unforeseen threats, problems and opportunities. Thus, we can achieve what John Gardner calls an, 'ever-renewing society'.

"So goes the theory." 

While facts are important, the most important role of schools must be to inculcate the ability to reason, to challenge ‘conventional wisdom’, to exercise freedom of thought and action. The strong emphasis the Government is giving to education as the foundation for a strong economy, a just society, and a vibrant democracy, is not just laudable, it is essential.

"In practice, we mostly get a different story. In our society as in others, we find that there are influential men at the head of important institutions who cannot afford to be found wrong, who find change inconvenient, perhaps intolerable, and who have financial or political interests they must conserve at any cost. Such men are, therefore, threatened in many respects by the theory of the democratic process and the concept of an ever-renewing society. Moreover, we find that their are obscure men who do not head important institutions who are similarly threatened because they have identified themselves with certain ideas and institutions which they wish to keep free from either criticism or change."

This is what Stiglitz says in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality. Postman and Weingartner were saying it over four decades ago, in 1969. Moreover, we see contemporaneously how some have become so wedded to certain ideas, such as global warming being a hoax, that they are threatened by anything that contradicts their beliefs. Just last week we saw them cherry-pick parts of the latest IPCC report to support their beliefs.

"Such men as these would much prefer that the schools do little or nothing to encourage youth to question, doubt, or challenge any part of the society in which they live, especially those parts which are most vulnerable. 'After all,' say the practical men, 'they are our schools, and they ought to promote our interests, and that is part of the democratic process, too’. True enough; and then we have a serious point of conflict. Whose schools are they, anyway, and whose interests should they be designed to serve? We realize that these are questions about which any self-respecting professor of education could write several books each one beginning with a reminder that the problem is not black or white, either/or, yes or no. But you will not expect us to be either professorial or prudent. We are, after all, trying to suggest strategies for survival as they may be developed in our schools, and the situation requires emphatic responses. We believe that the schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism. No. That is not emphatic enough. Try this: in the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.'

"It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap'. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'."

Here is the nub of the problem we as a nation need to resolve now. Although it has always been so in Australian politics, how many would disagree that these last two years have been beset with an unprecedented avalanche of political crap, whether it is about global warming and the effect of a price on carbon, about the economy, about the Government’s stewardship of it especially through the GFC, about the HIP and the BER, about the best way forward in health and education? And almost all of it has come from the Coalition and its leadership, and faithfully echoed by the much of mainstream media. If ever we needed ‘a built-in, shockproof crap detector’, we have needed it since 2010. All but the rusted-on have installed a crap detector, and as a sad result, many are turning away from political discourse. It is in our schools that crap detecting needs to be taught and learned.

Back to Postman and Weingartner: "There are many ways of describing this function of the schools, and many men who have. David Riesman, for example, calls this the 'counter-cyclical' approach to education, meaning that schools should stress values that are not stressed by other major institutions in the culture. Norbert Wiener insisted that the schools now must function as 'anti-entropic feedback systems', 'entropy' being the word used to denote a general and unmistakable tendency of all systems - natural and man-made - in the universe to 'run down', to reduce to chaos and uselessness. This is a process that cannot be reversed but that can be slowed down and partly controlled. One way to control it is through 'maintenance'. This is Eric Hoffer's dream, and he believes that the quality of maintenance is one of the best indices of the quality of life in a culture. But Wiener uses a different metaphor to get at the same idea. He says that in order for them to be an anti-entropic force, we must have adequate feedback. In other words, we must have instruments to tell us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by 'crap detecting'. It is also what John Gardner means by the 'ever-renewing society', and what Kenneth Boulding means by 'social self-consciousness'. We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most 'subversive' intellectual instrument - the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rivals its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

"We need hardly say that achieving such a perspective is extremely difficult, requiring, among other things, considerable courage. We are, after all, talking about achieving a high degree of freedom from the intellectual and social constraints of one's tribe. For example, it is generally assumed that people of other tribes have been victimized by indoctrination from which our tribe has remained free. Our own outlook seems 'natural' to us, and we wonder that other men can perversely persist in believing nonsense. Yet, it is undoubtedly true that, for most people, the acceptance of a particular doctrine is largely attributable to the accident of birth. They might be said to be 'ideologically inter-changeable', which means that they would have accepted any set of doctrines that happened to be valued by the tribe to which they were born. Each of us whether from the American tribe, Russian tribe, or Hopi tribe, is born into a symbolic environment as well as a physical one. We become accustomed very early to a 'natural' way of talking, and being talked to, about 'truth'. Quite arbitrarily, one's perception of what is 'true' or real is shaped by the symbols and symbol-manipulating institutions of his tribe. Most men, in time, learn to respond with favour and obedience to a set of verbal abstractions which they feel provides them with an ideological identity. One word for this, of course, is 'prejudice'. None of us is free of it, but it is the sign of a competent 'crap detector' that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up. In our own society, if one grows up in a language environment which includes and approve such a concept as 'white supremacy', one can quite 'morally' engage in the process of murdering civil-rights workers. Similarly, if one is living in a language environment where the term 'black power' crystallizes an ideological identity, one can engage, again quite 'morally', in acts of violence against any non-black persons or their property. An insensitivity to the unconscious effects of our 'natural' metaphors condemns us to highly constricted perceptions of how things are and, therefore, to highly limited alternative modes of behaviour.

"Those who are sensitive to the verbally built-in biases of their 'natural' environment seem 'subversive' to those who are not. There is probably nothing more dangerous to the prejudices of the latter than a man in the process of discovering that the language of his group is limited, misleading, or one-sided. Such a man is dangerous because he is not easily enlisted on the side of one ideology or another, because he sees beyond the words to the processes which give an ideology its reality. In his ‘May Man Prevail?’ Erich Fromm gives us an example of a man (himself) in the process of doing just that:

"The Russians believe that they represent socialism because they talk in terms of Marxist ideology, and they do not recognize how similar their system is to the most developed form of capitalism. We in the West believe that we represent the system of individualism, private initiative, and humanistic ethics, because we hold on to our ideology, and we do not see that our institutions have, in fact, in many ways become more and more similar to the hated system of communism.

"Religious indoctrination is still another example of this point. As Alan Watts has noted: 'irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness - an act of trust in the unknown' And so 'crap detecting' require a perspective on what Watts calls 'the standard-brand religions'. That perspective can also be applied to knowledge. If you substitute the phrase 'set of facts' for the word 'religion' in the quotation above, the statement is equally important and accurate.

"The need for this kind of perspective has always been urgent but never so urgent as now. We will not take you again through that painful catalogue of twentieth-century problems we cited in our introduction There are, however, three particular problems
[summarized below] which force us to conclude that the schools must consciously remake themselves into training centers for 'subversion'. In one sense, they are all one problem but for purposes of focus may be distinguished from each other.

"The first goes under the name of the 'communications revolution’ or media change…Very few of us have contemplated more rigorously what is happening through media change than Jacques Ellul who has sounded some chilling alarms. Without mass media, Ellul insists, there can be no effective propaganda. With them, there is almost nothing but. 'Only through concentration of a large number of media in a few hands can one attain a true orchestration, a continuity, and an application of scientific methods of influencing individuals.' That such concentration is occurring daily, Ellul says, is an established fact, and its results may well be an almost total homogenization of thought among those the media reach…

"Still another way of saying this is that, while there has been a tremendous increase in media there has been, at the same time, a decrease in available and viable 'democratic' channels of communication because the mass media are entirely one-way communication…No one can reach many people unless he has access to the mass media." 

Remember, these words were written over forty years ago. Today we know how prescient they were. And we now know that the only way we can counter the mass media, the Fourth Estate, is via the burgeoning Fifth Estate.

"We come then to a second problem which makes necessary a 'subversive' role for the schools. This one may appropriately be called the 'change revolution'. In order to illustrate what this means, we will use the media again and the metaphor of a clock face. [Remember, Postman and Weingartner wrote their book over forty years ago.] Imagine a clock face with sixty minutes on it. Let the clock stand for the time men have had access to writing systems. Our clock would thus represent something like three thousand years, and each minute on our clock fifty years. On this scale, there were no significant media changes until about nine minutes ago. At that time, the printing press came into use in Western culture. About three minutes ago, the telegraph, photograph, and locomotive arrived. Two minutes ago: the telephone, rotary press, motion pictures, automobile, aeroplane and radio. One minute ago, the talking picture. Television has appeared in the last ten seconds, the computer in the last five, and communications satellites in the last second. The laser beam - perhaps the most potent medium of communication of all - appeared only a fraction of a second ago…" [And social media just a few microseconds ago.]

"All of which brings us to the third problem: the 'burgeoning bureaucracy'. We are brought there because bureaucracies, in spite of their seeming indispensability, are by their nature highly resistant to change. The motto of most bureaucracies is, ‘Carry on, regardless'. There is an essential mindlessness about them which causes them, in most circumstances, to accelerate entropy rather than to impede it. Bureaucracies rarely ask themselves Why?, but only How?... "

Postman and Weingartner conclude their chapter on ‘Crap Detecting’ thus:

"What is the necessary business of the schools? To create eager consumers? To transmit the dead ideas, values, metaphors, and information of three minutes ago? To create smoothly functioning bureaucrats? These aims are truly subversive since they undermine our chances of surviving as a viable, democratic society. And they do their work in the name of convention and standard practice. We would like to see the schools go into the anti-entropy business. Now, that is subversive, too. But the purpose is to subvert attitude, beliefs and assumptions that foster chaos and uselessness."

During these last two years of unremitting political crap, we all have needed Hemingway’s built-in, shockproof, industrial-strength crap detector.

PM Gillard admonished journalists with: ‘Don’t write crap’, but they carried on doing so nevertheless. We have had crap dealt out about climate change, the economy, the competence of the Government, the integrity of our PM, and as recently as last week we had Justice Rares deliver a harsh judgement about the attempt of James Ashby and his co-conspirators to bring a sexual harassment case against the Speaker of the House with the intent of bringing him down and the Government with him. Although he didn’t use the word, Rares could have aptly described the Ashby case as ‘crap’. So, he threw it out, presumably onto the growing political ‘crap heap’. Then last week we had Tony Abbott heap more crap on the crap heap as he used weasel words to camouflage his involvement, and that of Mal Brough. He’s still at it, walking away from questions about Brough as recently as yesterday at the presser he called to gloat over the now-doubtful budget surplus.

The lesson for schools is that as the crap mushrooms, we need urgently to help our young to learn how to analyze, integrate, and synthesize information, concepts, and understandings into a meaningful whole, all the time looking for and detecting crap with their inbuilt crap detector, and consigning it to a place where it can do no harm. The health of our democracy depends on it.

What do you think?

Focus on political ideology: Joseph E Stiglitz

This is the second in the end-of-year series on The Political Sword on political ideology. It is based on a Stiglitz’s book: The Price of Inequality

Stiglitz’ book was published in mid 2012 in New York by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., and in London by Allen Lane, part of the Penguin Group.

Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate in economics, is currently a professor at Columbia University in the Department of Economics and the School of International and Public Affairs, and has taught at Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford. He was chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, and was Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank. He has pioneered theories in the fields of economic information, taxation, development, trade, and technical change.

The summary that follows is provided by Project Syndicate, an international not-for-profit newspaper syndicate and association of newspapers that distributes commentaries and analysis.

”America likes to think of itself as a land of opportunity, and others view it in much the same light. But, while we can all think of examples of Americans who rose to the top on their own, what really matters are the statistics: to what extent do an individual’s life chances depend on the income and education of his or her parents?

“Nowadays, these numbers show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe – or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data.

“This is one of the reasons that America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries – and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the “recovery” of 2009-2010, the top 1% of US income earners captured 93% of the income growth. Other inequality indicators – like wealth, health, and life expectancy – are as bad or even worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.

“It would be one thing if the high incomes of those at the top were the result of greater contributions to society, but the Great Recession showed otherwise: even bankers who had led the global economy, as well as their own firms, to the brink of ruin, received outsize bonuses.

“A closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking: some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are CEOs who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from government munificence – either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).

“Likewise, part of the wealth of those in finance comes from exploiting the poor, through predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices. Those at the top, in such cases, are enriched at the direct expense of those at the bottom.

“It might not be so bad if there were even a grain of truth to trickle-down economics – the quaint notion that everyone benefits from enriching those at the top. But most Americans today are worse off – with lower real (inflation-adjusted) incomes – than they were in 1997, a decade and a half ago. All of the benefits of growth have gone to the top.

“Defenders of America’s inequality argue that the poor and those in the middle shouldn’t complain. While they may be getting a smaller share of the pie than they did in the past, the pie is growing so much, thanks to the contributions of the rich and superrich, that the size of their slice is actually larger. The evidence, again, flatly contradicts this. Indeed, America grew far faster in the decades after World War II, when it was growing together, than it has since 1980, when it began growing apart.

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise, once one understands the sources of inequality. Rent-seeking distorts the economy. Market forces, of course, play a role, too, but markets are shaped by politics; and, in America, with its quasi-corrupt system of campaign finance and its revolving doors between government and industry, politics is shaped by money.

“For example, a bankruptcy law that privileges derivatives over all else, but does not allow the discharge of student debt, no matter how inadequate the education provided, enriches bankers and impoverishes many at the bottom. In a country where money trumps democracy, such legislation has become predictably frequent.

“But growing inequality is not inevitable. There are market economies that are doing better, both in terms of both GDP growth and rising living standards for most citizens. Some are even reducing inequalities.

“America is paying a high price for continuing in the opposite direction. Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that its most valuable asset – its people – is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and technology, impeding the engines of growth.

“The Great Recession has exacerbated inequality, with cutbacks in basic social expenditures and with high unemployment putting downward pressure on wages. Moreover, the United Nations Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, investigating the causes of the Great Recession, and the International Monetary Fund have both warned that inequality leads to economic instability.

“But, most importantly, America’s inequality is undermining its values and identity. With inequality reaching such extremes, it is not surprising that its effects are manifest in every public decision, from the conduct of monetary policy to budgetary allocations. America has become a country not “with justice for all,” but rather with favouritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it – so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.

“America can no longer regard itself as the land of opportunity that it once was. But it does not have to be this way: it is not too late for the American dream to be restored.”

Stiglitz’s book is in harmony with the last piece: The ideology of politics: Ross Gittins in which Gittins comments on Professor Jeffrey Sachs’ book: The Price of Civilisation.

Using the US as the context, Stiglitz talk of matters we have discussed here before: the inequality that gives the top earners almost all of the income growth thereby widening the gap between the very rich and the rest, the growing role of rent seekers, the fallacy of ‘trickle down economics’. Stiglitz examines particularly the social effects of inequality – slowing growth, rising unemployment, downward pressure on wages, underinvestment in infrastructure, education and technology, adverse effects on the health of the middle and lower classes, and social discord.

It’s now over to you, readers of The Political Sword.

What do you think?